The Disaster Preparedness of our Mobile Devices

by Jeff Wiener on September 13, 2012

Can modern wireless networks keep us connected in times of disaster? As the 11th anniversary of the devastating 9/11 terrorist attacks arrived on Tuesday I once again found myself asking this question, wondering if our modern hodgepodge of network infrastructure is prepared to handle the chaos and crisis that such disasters bring.

As I mentioned last year, on the 10th anniversary of a tragedy that likely has changed all of us in some way or another, the communication breakdown on that fateful day was due both to damaged communication infrastructure and the sheer volume of wireless traffic, meaning that cellular signals were lost because cell towers were down and because the existing network simply wasn’t prepared for that volume. So have things improved?

While there’s no question that wireless companies have spent billions of dollars across the continent to improve network deficiencies, the fact of the matter remains that almost every month here at theTelecomblog we write stories about network outages, overwhelming network data stress, and a host of other issues that lead me to conclude that still, after eleven years, the devices we trust the most to keep us connected may not be there when we need them most.

While in fairness I wrote last year about the attempts the wireless community is making to shore up the weaknesses we’ve seen exploited by widespread tragedies, the bottom line is that even as carriers invest heavily in improving their networks, such improvements seem only to be on par with our increased mobile usage.

This means that when, heaven forbid, that crisis arrives, despite the improved infrastructure things will likely collapse as they did over a decade ago, simply due to the millions of exponentially more powerful mobile devices trying to simultaneously connect to a network that can barely handle the signal traffic generated on a daily basis.

As I’ve written previously, the danger we as a mobile society now face is not only that the wireless devices we depend on may not be there when we need them most, but that we might not know what to do when they’re not there. Given that our dependence on wireless networks has grown exponentially over the last eleven years, should that infrastructure fail in our time of greatest need many more people will be affected, most of whom will not even have a land-line to fall back on.

While I certainly don’t want to be a fear-monger during a difficult time that perpetually raises questions related to safety, to fear, to war, and to the devastating power of hatred, the questions that seem to always arise in my mind are ones related to preparedness. There’s no question that wireless companies themselves seem extremely confident that their networks will withstand the chaos of any sort of natural disaster, but as I’ve said before, such optimism is to be expected from companies who want your business.

The reality of the situation is that due to our dependence on mobile technology, technology largely unproven in the face of widespread disaster, each of us needs to develop our own disaster preparedness plan, one that includes a communication contingency should all our optimism about network improvements prove to be misplaced.

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