The Hudson River landing of U.S. Airways flight 1549 occurred on a depressing winter afternoon in New York. It was brutally cold, the news about Steve Jobs was sad, and the economy was continuing its downward spiral.
The initial wonderful news that everyone survived soon gave way to amazement at the video and still images that captured the event. The reaction to the crisis clearly demonstrated the depth of people's ability and willingness to use the new technology. This new reality has drastically changed how news is reported and, in a sense, how it is made.
Indeed, if cells and smartphones were available in 1963, we would have thousands of views of the Kennedy assassination, not Abraham Zapruder's lone grainy film. The stunning images-commercial jets plunking into rivers and people standing on the wings patiently waiting to be taken ashore is about as compelling as it gets-are only one of the interesting elements of yesterday's events.
It also was fascinating to see how quickly people tuned in. Akamai, which runs perhaps the preeminent content deliver network, said that the event generated almost 5 million demands per second shortly before 5 PM ET. The organization distributes news for CNN, CBS, NBC and others. The firm said the landing was the seventh biggest event in the history of the network.
There is an important point here besides the recognition of how things have changed. We are in a season of major events (Obama's election November 4 and next Tuesday's inauguration are the bookends) in which mobile communications is a key subtext. For instance, it is hard to watch footage of the scene in Grant Park in Chicago as the race is called for Obama without getting a visceral sense of just how monumental the moment was.
The river landing was unexpected, of course, but the festivities next Tuesday aren't. CNET's Marguerite Reardon is going to D.C.-and she wonders if the network will hold up as a couple of million folks call, message and stream during the big event. It will be interesting to see how the network reacts. The cellular carriers have all the advance notice they need and, hopefully, are doing whatever is technically necessary to buttress their networks.
eWeek says that, indeed, the carriers are working on the issue with such devices as Cells on Wheels (COWS), Cells on Light Trucks (COLTS) and Satellite Cell Sites on Light Trucks (SatCOLTS, of course). The bottom line, as the headline suggests, is that the common good will be served if people focus on relatively undemanding text messages.
In any case, a million or so people in one place doing the same electronic thing is likely to cause problems. Reardon quotes a Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association spokesman, who tries to manage expectations by invoking Issac Newton. He says that engineers "can only bend the laws of physics so much."
Regardless of what happens Tuesday, network upgrades make complete crashes such as those surrounding Hurricane Katrina and 911 a bit less likely. At this point, the change is marginal because the devices and applications people use ride on relatively few networks. A significant milestone will be reached when WiMax and Long Term Evolution (LTE) become widely available. These 4G platforms rely on discrete transmission infrastructures from each other and from current cellular networks. Thus, they will significantly increase the ability of the network to withstand unexpected jolts.