Are Wireless Networks Disaster Ready?

by Jeff Wiener on September 8, 2011

Can modern wireless networks keep us connected in times of disaster? As the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11/2001 approaches it’s a question on the mind’s of many people across North America. You see, while some of the network disruption on that fateful day was a result of infrastructure damage due to the collapsing buildings, most of it was due to network surge, as millions of people sought to connect with their loved ones.

Now consider how things have changed over the past decade. In America the number of wireless subscribers has almost tripled, with some 302 million Americans—or 98 percent of the population—now using a mobile device, and in Canada estimates say that in the next three years over half our population will have smartphones—not saying anything about the numbers relating to general cellphone usage—and that in that same time period 1 in 4 people will cut the cord and use only a wireless device.

While wireless companies have spent billions of dollars across North America to not only shore up their current weaknesses but prepare for the data strain that is still to come, what this all adds up to is an increased dependence on our mobile devices, devices that still may not be there when we need them most.

To be fair, wireless networks are considerably better equipped to handle the major surge in user traffic that would normally be generated by a major disaster. Companies both large and small have spent billions acquiring more spectrum—increasing most network’s ability to handle large amounts of traffic—and most major networks have setup backup power systems for their networks hubs, should widespread power outages be an issue.

In fact, there are innumerable changes to network infrastructure and services—consider the value of enhanced 911 10 years ago, a service that allows operators to locate cell signals—that we have today that were unavailable a decade ago, so perhaps there’s reason for tempered optimism.

Of course the flip side continues to tell a story of unpreparedness, as only a month ago network services in New York once again faltered after a relatively minor earthquake hit Virginia, proof perhaps that our network readiness still has a ways to go before it can be relied upon in times of crisis.

As I mentioned previously, this problem is exacerbated by the fact that dependence on wireless networks has increased exponentially in that last 10 years, meaning that should wireless networks fail in the face of a natural or man-made disaster even more people will be affected, many of whom will no longer even have the alternative of a landline to fall back on.

Wireless companies’ themselves seem supremely confident that their networks will be able to better withstand the traffic strains produced by disasters, but that, of course, is to be expected. I doubt many of us would consider cutting the cord to our landline if our wireless provider promised spotty and unreliable service in times of crisis.

That said, despite the billions of dollars of improvements poured into the wireless networks across North America, its becoming abundantly clear that each of our own personal disaster preparedness plans need to be updated, as each of us needs to now take into consideration the possibility of limited or no communication in an increasingly wireless world and develop a communication contingency plan.

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Written by: Jeff Wiener. www.digitcom.ca. Follow TheTelecomBlog.com by: RSS, Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube.

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The Disaster Preparedness of our Mobile Devices — TheTelecomBlog.com
September 13, 2012 at 8:30 am

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