Limits of Upgrading Emergency Communications

    I am not as cynical about the government as many folks. Though there are many blunders and miscalculations – and a thief or two here and there – it is evident to me that the government in most cases really is trying to help.

    One sign of this is this repetitive pattern: A big disaster occurs. Communications is disrupted. First responders and the public can’t get the information they need. When the dust settles – unfortunately after 9/11 that phrase can be taken literally – the government holds hearings on why communications broke down and what can be done to fix things.

    The Federal Communications Commission this week had such meetings in New York and New Jersey, which of course were hit hard this fall by Superstorm Sandy. The New York hearing, as reported in the New York Times, showed how quickly our seemingly stable world breaks down. For instance, the city manager of Long Beach – which is on the south shore of Long Island that was devastated – couldn’t even get in touch with Verizon to discuss the situation. Here is the FCC landing page on the event.

    Some progress no doubt is made with every disaster. But what must be realized after a couple of decades of especially frequent disasters is that the improvements are only around the edges. The bottom line, like it or not, is that telecommunications will either fail or be severely degraded every time disaster strikes.

    That’s too bad, but there are few solid reasons to expect this and, perhaps, be pleasantly surprised by a working network:

    • A hurricane is not a tornado, is not a terrorist attack and is not an earthquake. It is possible to do some basic things to protect the telecommunications network, such as install robust standby power supplies. But emergencies are by definition unpredictable and random. It is impossible to do as good a job of keeping a network up as it would be in an imaginary scenario in which the nature, location and timing of the disaster is known. Technology can’t remove major variables.
    • Networks are by nature fragile. This is, of course, ever more the reality as mobility increases. Cellular networks depend on big towers that are sitting ducks for bad weather, bad people and other disruptive events.
    • Networks by nature are not built to withstand disasters. The government and carriers can spin it any way they want, but the fact is that networks are built to fully serve the public on boring August afternoons. It simply makes no sense financially – and indeed may simply be impossible from that perspective – to build a network with enough capacity to support the level of communications that hits the moment a disaster occurs.
    • Networks are built on sophisticated “contention” models that suggest how much infrastructure is necessary to support normal operations. The precise point at which things will start going south are well known, as is the costs/benefits of ensuring smooth services beyond that point. It’s not practical to build networks that can serve everyone in every case. Remember, it is impossible to know when, where and what kind of disaster will occur.

    Most of the downtime is not due to the headline events such as Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy. Quorum, a disaster recovery/business continuity firm, pointed out last week that things that don’t make the news are bigger problems:

    While natural disasters tend to take center stage when considering the causes of downtime, hardware and software failures and human error are statistically more common. In fact, hardware failures alone comprise more than one-half of disasters for small to mid-sized businesses, according to the Quorum Disaster Recovery Report.

    Quorum’s release and the infographic the company also offers are aimed at small and medium-size businesses (SMBs). The basic idea is the same as in the telecom networking world: The subtle problems and small glitches in aggregate are more of a problem than the events that get round-the-clock coverage on CNN and The Weather Channel. Forbes offered some guidance on how SMBs should approach disaster recovery/business continuity.

    This all is not to imply that progress can’t be made. Some of it is legislative. The Emergency Alert System has been upgraded during the past few years. The FCC is carving out nationwide spectrum for first responders during upcoming auctions. eWeek touched on the issue two weeks ago:

    An additional agenda of the auctions is to create a nationwide emergency communications wireless network for the nation’s first responders. It’s hoped that the auctions will raise $15 billion, $7 billion of which would go toward the emergency network.

    Technical advances also help. The New York Times article points out that the emergence of small cell technology could make the wireless infrastructure more robust by reducing reliance on vulnerable towers and creating more of a mesh infrastructure.

    In the big picture, however, it is useful for everyone to recognize that there only is so much that can be done to keep communications flowing during a disaster.

    Carl Weinschenk
    Carl Weinschenk
    Carl Weinschenk Carl Weinschenk Carl Weinschenk is a long-time IT and telecom journalist. His coverage areas include the IoT, artificial intelligence, artificial intelligence, drones, 3D printing LTE and 5G, SDN, NFV, net neutrality, municipal broadband, unified communications and business continuity/disaster recovery. Weinschenk has written about wireless and phone companies, cable operators and their vendor ecosystems. He also has written about alternative energy and runs a website, The Daily Music Break, as a hobby.

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