Lessons From Hurricane Irene on Cell Phone Reliability

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Since cell phones are the norm, improving that network may be less expensive than maintaining and upgrading landline infrastructure

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The New York Times reports on the surprising performance of cell phones during the hurricane emergency:

The rise of mobile devices turns the conventional wisdom about landline telephones on its head. For decades, the landline phone was trusted to be more reliable than the electricity grid because the phone network's dedicated power supply often survived blackouts.

But the evolution of the landline -- which first saw cordless phones (that do not work in blackouts) and Internet-based telephony (which requires a battery backup in case of blackouts) -- has led to a decrease in its reliability. That hole has been filled, to some degree, by wireless voice and data networks. 

The point is half right. Some landline service was knocked out by Irene, probably as a result of damage to vulnerable above-ground links, like flooded switching stations. And my own cell service continued even after my Internet-based phone (and cable and, of course, Web) connection failed. What the article doesn't say, though, is that we have a long way to go in making the cell network nearly as reliable as landline.

Only a year or two ago, I was ready to argue that old-fashioned phone service was a vital community lifeline. It's clear that as the expense of maintaining it is falling on fewer and few subscribers, it won't be sustainable in the long run, together with its famous standard of 99.999 percent reliability and ample backup power in emergencies.

Power outages, winds, and flooding can knock out cell towers. A few long emergency calls on hold could quickly drain even fully charged batteries. Running a vehicle cell charger isn't always an option, especially if a car or truck has been disabled by a storm or earthquake or fuel is short. It's unsafe to idle cars in urban garages. Some products purporting to be emergency cell phone backup batteries are not compatible with all phones, as I discovered even before the storm. Even if fully charged, my cable modem is rated at only about seven hours, while some of my local friends have been without power for over 24. Local libraries are crowded with laptop refugees. There's an obvious need for ways to extend the reserve.

Since cell phones and Internet phone service is becoming the norm, bringing them up to the five-nines standard may be a less expensive goal than maintaining and upgrading the landline infrastructure.

Internet service providers and cell phone companies need to work out better affordable and standardized emergency hardware: hand-cranked generators, backup batteries, signal boosters, and even automatic emergency forwarding of Internet-based calls to cell numbers and vice versa whenever one system or another is down.

Image: Reuters.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center and holds a Ph.D in European history. More

Edward Tenner is an independent writer and speaker on the history of technology and the unintended consequences of innovation. He holds a Ph.D. in European history from the University of Chicago and was executive editor for physical science and history at Princeton University Press. A former member of the Harvard Society of Fellows and John Simon Guggenheim fellow, he has been a visiting lecturer at Princeton and has held visiting research positions at the Institute for Advanced Study, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy. He is now an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center, where he remains a senior research associate.

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