Telecommunications

August 25, 2011 by  
Filed under General Information, Social & Economic Impacts

From:  “Why didn’t cellphones work?”, Politico, David Saleh Rauf

The technological traffic jam that rendered cellphones useless in the wake of Tuesday’s temblorhas officials pondering a scary question: What happens if a real disaster strikes the nation’s capital?

While police and firefighters in and around the capital apparently communicated just fine after the 5.8-magnitude earthquake, the rest of Washington can’t say the same. In the minutes and even hours after the earth shook, D.C. denizens couldn’t even reach 911 with their cellphones.

And some say the overloaded cellphone networks exposed deep cracks in the emergency communications system’s foundation.

“Yesterday was a warning bell in the night that tells us there is something terribly wrong with 911. The whole point of 911 is to be able to get through,” said former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt, who led the commission in 1996 when it required wireless carriers to implement basic 911 services.

FCC officials did not like what they saw. They’re asking wireless providers to explain the extent of Tuesday’s logjam and what can be done to prevent it from happening again.

“It’s a serious concern for us,” one FCC official told POLITICO. “We have a lot of people now who cut the cord, and who rely on their wireless phones to reach loved ones. If there are problems with that, it’s something we need to investigate.”
The commission estimates roughly two-thirds of people use their cellphones to call 911.

Lacking cell service after Tuesday’s quake, many people turned to social media to communicate. Twitter reported more than 40,000 quake-related Tweets within minutes and Facebook saw 3 million mentions of the term “earthquake” in its users’ status update.

When Hundt’s librarian sister couldn’t reach first responders Tuesday while trying to call an ambulance for a patron who was hit by falling ceiling tiles, he said it became clear the system needs to be updated.

“The Internet worked, Twitter worked,” Hundt said. “But the Internet doesn’t have 911 service. Maybe what we ought to do is ask Facebook to provide the 911 service.”

Actually, that’s kind of what FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski is envisioning.

Genachowski earlier this month rolled out a five-step plan for the commission to implement Next Generation 911 services that will allow people to text and send photographs and videos to 911 dispatchers in an emergency.

Another FCC official said Wednesday that the commission monitored carefully the quake-related outpouring on social networks and described the efforts as “very effective.” It serves as an illustration of why the 911 initiative needs to happen, the official said.

“We analyze every disaster and see what we can learn from it. Next Generation 911 is going to be absolutely necessary for the future and for right now,” the official said. “The chairman is very interested in using existing technology that’s already in people’s hands to reach 911.”

Wireless industry officials say cellphone networks performed as well as could be expected given the huge volume.
“To be clear: The wireless networks worked,” Steve Largent, president and CEO of CTIA-The Wireless Association, wrote in a blog post Wednesday. “No wireless towers went down and no networks failed as a result of the sizable earthquake.”
But the huge surge in call and data traffic caused significant delays, prompting concerns about what might happen in a more serious emergency.

The earthquake has also reignited debate over a nationwide data network for first responders to communicate during emergencies. The idea has been mired in politics and first responders are doubtful that the networks of commercial wireless carriers will be able to withstand an emergency on the scale of Sept. 11.

“We simply can’t rely on these commercial networks to provide service at a mission critical grade,” said NYPD Deputy Chief Charles Dowd said.

In a stark contrast to Sept. 11, FCC officials said public safety networks and 911 data centers reported no problems Tuesday, a sentiment echoed by D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier.

“You couldn’t get on the cellphone, you couldn’t send text messages,” Lanier said. “So the key for us was quick communication through our command centers.”

From: “Cellphone service falls short after earthquake”, Washington Post, Cecilia Kang and and Ylan Q. Mui

The earthquake didn’t appear to damage cell towers. They simply got jammed because everyone tried to call at the same time — a problem exacerbated during times of emergency. Voice calls take up more bandwidth than texts and e-mails, which carriers have urged customers to use instead.

“The industry’s infrastructure appears to be intact, but because many wireless consumers are using the networks, we are experiencing higher than normal traffic,” said Amy Storey, a spokeswoman for the wireless trade organization CTIA. “In these high-volume instances, there can be delays.”

Public safety responders in the District and Prince George’s, Fairfax and Arlington counties said they used radios to communicate with no problems and do not rely on cellphones.

Emergency call centers also reported becoming overwhelmed with residents checking in and reporting the earthquake. U.S. Park Police and Prince William County Police turned to Twitter to urge people to limit 911 calls unless they were truly in danger.

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