Is a Landline Still a Lifeline?

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The Washington Post reports that 2.3 million Northern Virginia subscribers were left without emergency 911 service for several days after the torrential windstorms in the Washington area in late June:

The 911 failure, of which the generator failure was only one factor, began hours after the severe derecho thunderstorm passed through the region about 10:30 p.m. June 29. The storm damaged "multiple points" of Verizon's network, said Kyle Malady, Verizon's senior vice president for global network engineering and operations.

"The magnitude of this event cannot be overstated," he said, adding that it exceeded damage caused by Hurricane Irene.

When commercial power failed, the Arlington County hub for Northern Virginia's 911 service failed, and the facility reverted to a battery backup. Twin diesel-powered generators are supposed to quickly kick in, but one of the two generators could not be started, Malady said.

Both generators had undergone routine testing three days earlier

In principle, "twisted-twisted" landline phones provide the highest level of reliability; some vendors still endorse this view. Last year I wrote here about how cell phones turned out to be vital after Hurricane Irene, and now the security of the landline is even more in doubt. The failure affected customers whose home and cell phones were still operating.

The disaster can be a chance to look again at emergency communication. Are more emergency generators needed for redundancy's sake? Could the age of backup equipment have been a factor, despite regular testing? (My 7-year-old auto battery failed abruptly a week after getting a clean bill of health in dealer maintenance.)  The Baby Bells are lobbying hard to leave the landline business. But will that threaten emergency response?  It would be good to have a study by an independent technical organization. I'm not yet ready to pull the plug on twisted-pair service.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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