Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Cell Phones and Emergencies Don't Mix

As the latest in this year's hurricane parade splashes its way through Florida, one ugly reality about our regional and national emergency infrastructure has emerged.

Our wonderful, how-did-we-live-without them, never-out-of-touch cell phone networks are all but useless in wide-scale emergencies. And our increasing dependence on these wireless marvels are exposing a huge gap in one of the most fundamental elements of disaster recovery: communication.

Emergent scenarios present the existing cell network with the two realities it was least designed to handle: high call volume and the need for proximal distance access. The former is simple; cell subscribers outpaced the growth of the cell network, and its attendant capacity. When users in concentrated locations all start using their phones simultaneously, the bandwidth-limited network seizes up, and calls don't go through. The latter is more subtle, but only now being appreciated by more localities - cell networks don't necessarily route 911 calls to the presumptive local authorities, assuming 911 on a given cell phone goes anywhere at all.

That belies the fundamental problem with the cell network: it was never designed to operate under the stress of emergent situations. Cities and cell providers are only now beginning to work out after-the-fact the issues that will allow them to integrate traditional land-line 911 emergency access in their wireless networks. And while even land-lines have their capacity limitations, it doesn't take but a fraction of the corresponding volume to ball-up most cell networks. Worse still is that cell phone problems aren't always as simple as finding a snapped cable; the complex routing mechanisms that get a call from cell phone "A" to cell phone "B" can make failure diagnosis one part science, and one part black magic.

The weaknesses present mutually paradoxical risks. Even if cities were able to flip the technical switches necessary to turn on cell-based 911 access tomorrow, capacity problems would inevitably result in the saturation of a cell network with emergency calls, with reams of frustrated cell users would find their calls going nowhere. Conversely, an infinitely capable network is of limited usefulness in an emergency if no 911 service is available.

These two problems say nothing of the universal issues of dead spots, coverage holes, and other glitches that seem to plague the general cell phone community. For most of us, such failures are minor annoyances we learn to live with. In an emergency, however, such problems may prove to be far more than annoying. We've come to allow ourselves to think of the cell phone as a substantial replacement for the traditional land-line, but overlook the fundamental differences in the technologies that make these capacity and connection problems so real. Land-lines don't have dead spots, don't have coverage holes, and do have nearly a century of real-world experience as their legacy. With cell phones, we're very much learning as we go.

What's the solution? There really isn't one. Cell technology certainly isn't going away; we've engaged in a long-term relationship with our cell phones, marrying our mobility with our inherent desire to be connected 24x7 to...anything. Cell towers are popping up faster than ever, in more locations, and in more forms (checked out that apartment complex's flag pole lately?) to accomodate increasing cell density. Some users are actually abandoning land-lane phones entirely. That means the problem will only get worse.

Will the practical necessity of emergency communications catch up with the torrid pace of cell deployment? Only time will tell. The good folks in Florida emerging from Wilma's aftermath might like to tell us their experience, but it seems their cell phones are still down....

No comments: