Wireless Phones Ought to Work Better During Emergencies
Wireless Phones Ought to Work Better During Emergencies
Wireless Phones Ought to Work Better During Emergencies

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    After Tuesday’s east coast earthquake, lots of people tried to call their loved ones and couldn’t get through. A parent may have wanted to check on his kids or a spouse may have wanted to call home to say that she was all right. Maybe people wanted to just touch base and chat about the unusual event, or maybe they needed to just talk about their possibly-delayed commute home. Or–more seriously–they may have tried to call 911, to report an injury related to the quake or not. But anyone who tried to make a wireless call of any importance found out the hard way that carriers don’t design their networks to cope with peak usage.

    Imagine if it was like that with electricity. Peak usage for power typically comes during the hottest days of summer as people stay indoors and crank up the AC. It’s not easy for power companies to cope with peak loads like this, but they do it anyway. In some places, during summer months, entire power plants have to come on line just to cope with demand. Adding to the cost of coping with peak usage, these backup plants are often coal-fired and relatively polluting. But even with all of this, power outages and brownouts are not considered acceptable. We’re looking for ways to smooth out demand–for example, getting people to run their washing machines overnight, cutting back on some industrial uses during peak times, and installing mind-reading smart meters in people’s houses. We’re also trying to increase the energy efficiency of appliances and devices and investing in green power. We’re not, howver, looking to train people to just deal with outages.

    Traditionally, the public interest has demanded extremely high reliability from the phone system. There’s no reason for this to change just because so many people turn to their wireless phones first before even trying to make a landline call. If anything, wireless carriers should be even more reliable. Wireless carriers get exclusive spectrum licenses and other benefits that are not available to other businesses. Most people have phones on them all the time now, and wireless phones don’t demand on wires (which can break) running to every building, which should make their networks more resilient against damage. It’s reasonable to expect wireless service to be available during an emergency.

    It’s true that it’s hard to predict peak usage on wireless networks. No one knows when the next earthquake or terrorist attack might take place. But carriers have an idea of what peak usage looks like, and they ought to design their networks to withstand it.

    The wireless industry is already claiming that the outages show that it needs more spectrum. (While public safety officials and broadcasters make roughly the same claims.) Maybe it does, but “more spectrum” is not the only answer. Towers, backhaul, and other infrastructure improvements will no doubt play a part in increasing the reliability of wireless networks. And maybe the extra spectrum is the solution to something that’s not really a problem, since some in the wireless industry are even denying that there were really any “outages” at all–presumably, their theory is that outages caused by high demand aren’t real outages. From my perspective, when people can’t make calls, that’s an “outage,” and luckily that what the law says: “Outage is defined as a significant degradation in the ability of an end user to establish and maintain a channel of communications as a result of failure or degradation in the performance of a communications provider’s network.” 47 C.F.R. ยง 4.5.

    Only the FCC can make sure that carriers improve their networks.  The public can’t afford to have this issue sidelined while industry groups quibble over spectrum allocations and definitions. By itself, the market is not going to overcome the short-term thinking and other systematic incentives that cause carriers to underinvest in their networks. Wireless customers typically don’t only buy from carriers that claim high reliability during natural disasters or other peak usage events–and even if they did, it’s not clear how they’d check on the carriers’ claims. This kind of reliability is something people only start to demand once they realize it’s missing. When Katrina hit New Orleans a lot of wireless towers went down due to power loss; the FCC investigated this and eventually required that some towers carry backup power systems.

    One bright spot in wireless communications after the quake was that text messaging and even data services continued to work pretty well. SMS messages and most data applications are low-bandwidth communications that do not, unlike voice calls, require that a steady communications channel be established for a lengthy time. Even FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate has said that people should consider turing to social media to stay in touch with their family and friends after emergencies. Of course, it would be a shame if gouging 20 cent-per-SMS plans and unrealistically low data caps started to discourage people from using these useful communications tools.

    But just telling people “don’t try to make calls during an emergency” is not a solution (and it won’t work, anyway). A Facebook update is not going to dispatch an ambulance to your house. In any event, children under thirteen, by law, generally aren’t allowed on social networks or even to have email accounts. Thus, the Commission should continue its work to make sure that mobile phones work reliably during emergencies. Cell service went down for only a short time after Tuesday’s pretty harmless mini-quake; imagine what could have happened during a more severe event.