News Analysis: Every time we have a major man-made or natural event, like the stunning Aug. 23 earthquake in Virginia that shook most of the East Coast, mobile phones stop working. You should plan to live without your mobile service in such emergencies.
The earthquake that struck
the U.S. East Coast Aug. 23 was a real surprise for nearly everyone. First of
all, the East Coast rarely gets earthquakes that are big enough to feel.
Furthermore, this one was
big enough to cause property damage.
The result of this was that
anyone with a phone on the East Coast was calling someone else to say (as I
did) "Hey! We're having an earthquake!" Of course, there were also calls to
report that one was O.K., or calls to see if someone in the affected area was O.K.
Finally, there were thousands of calls of derision from people on the West Coast,
"Ha! Is that all you got?"
jammed phone networks
everywhere near the affected area. Cell systems were
overtaxed; landlines had problems handling calls; and the switching centers
were trying to cope with far more calls than normal. Adding to this was a scare
caused by a rogue Tweeter saying that cell towers were down everywhere. For a
few minutes, many people were in a state of panic.
But what's stranger than the
fact that people panicked about the clogged networks is the fact that many of
these same people panicked the last time the networks were clogged. Depending
on where you happened to be, this might have been Hurricane Katrina or it might
have been the Giants winning the 2010 World Series, which jammed networks in
San Francisco even without the chaos of an earthquake.
phone networks get jammed
because the cell sites are only designed to
handle a certain number of calls at the same time. Likewise, the switches that
the wireless companies use can only carry a specific number of calls at the
same time. This is compounded because the cell phones of first responders and
others with critical jobs have a priority code attached to their call so they
get access to the cell site even if it means kicking you off.
Wired phone systems have
similar capacity problems, of course, and their switches can also get
overloaded. But it's cell phones that get the most notice. After the recent
quake, for example, wireless carriers reported that their systems were clogged
for periods, ranging from 30 minutes to nearly an hour. What this means to you
is that you and your business need to have a plan for communications during an
emergency that doesn't involve making calls on your cell phone.