The Marathon Bombing, Terrorism and the Cellular Network

Carl Weinschenk

It’s been an awful week in the United States. First there was a bombing at the Boston Marathon and – in a story that still is developing at this writing – a fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, has taken several lives.

Early reports from Boston were that carriers had shut down service due to fears that the bombers were using cell phones to detonate explosions. Subsequently, WirelessWeek and other sites reported that the carriers deny that service had been suspended.

Regardless of what actually happened, the situation begs three interrelated questions:

  • Is it really possible to remotely explode a bomb using a cell phone, or is that an urban legend?
  • Is suspension of cellular service one of the protocols in such situations? In other words, even if in this case service was not interrupted, was it an option?
  • To what degree do first responders rely on cell phone service?

The point is pretty self-evident. Authorities – the Federal Communications Commission, the Department of Homeland Security and others -- must quickly deal with the issue of cellular networks and terrorism. The wrong answers above could create more Hobson’s choices: Either enable terrorists or make it more difficult for first responders.

It is naïve to suggest that cellular communications can be divorced from emergencies. They always will be part of the response. For instance, Raytheon released a first responder app in February that fully incorporates cellular networks. This month, National Defense magazine posted a feature describing how the Mutualink platform can create communications channels connecting various entities during emergencies. Cellular platforms are an important element of the company’s approach.

This all means that a lot rides on the state of the cellular network. Even if terrorism is not a concern – such as during Superstorm Sandy, for instance – reliance of the cellular network is tricky because of dramatic spikes in traffic that are part and parcel of emergencies. Luckily, technology exists that enables first responders to maintain connectivity in such situations, according to The Register-Guard, a news site in Eugene, Oregon.

That would seem to assume the availability of such networks, however. It is possible that there are ways to suspend commercial services without shutting down first responders. It seems a bit unlikely, however, simply because it would already have been done. Another problem with such a system is that it would be narrow: The mobile devices would need special apps or software in order to be distinguished from purely commercial users. Thus, an expansive and flexible array of emergency people who ideally would be linked in a particular situation – doctors who happen to be at the scene of an emergency and owners of buildings with access to building plans, for instance – would not be included. Such an arrangement, however, would be far better than nothing.

The bottom line is that there is a deep connection between first responders and cellular networks. It is entirely possible that the either/or choice – help the bad guys or hinder the good ones – doesn’t exist in real life. If it doesn’t, the carriers should say so. If it does, it needs to be addressed – and quickly.



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