Why Mobile Phones Didn't Work After Virginia Earthquake

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2011-08-24

Why Mobile Phones Didn't Work After Virginia Earthquake

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?"

These calls 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.

Cell 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.

Send Instant Messages Instead

Fortunately, there are other means to communicate besides making phone calls. The easiest for most people is simply to use Short Message Service (SMS) texting. This is because text messages require very little bandwidth, and they're not particularly time-sensitive. You can, for example, text "OMG-A Quake!" to your friends and the message will probably get through.

Now that more and more emergency operations centers and 911 call centers are being equipped to handle text messages, this can be an effective means of getting help if you really need it during a disaster. But there are other things you can do, if you plan ahead.

For example, you can encourage employees who happen to be amateur radio operators to keep a radio at work. Your company can even buy the radio for them, and you can encourage employees to get their ham radio licenses. It's important to know that these radios can only be used for true emergencies, such as threats to life or safety. You can't use ham radio to do anything related to conducting your business. But if an employee gets injured during a disaster and the landlines and mobile networks are out, your resident ham radio operator can use the radio to call for help.

Another option is to employ alternate communications, such as Skype or instant messaging. Just because the phones are overloaded, that doesn't mean you can't reach out on the Internet. It still might be possible to place voice over IP calls, send email, instant messages or social networking posts.

You can, for example, send out a Tweet saying that everyone is safe or tell your employees not to come in until next Monday. Because you can do this with a bandwidth demand similar to SMS, the chances are very good that your messages will get through. This is especially the case because you can send a Tweet using SMS if you like.

The bottom line, of course, is to plan for an emergency in which the phones, both wireless and wired, don't work. Plan how you would handle this for something short term, such as after the Tuesday quake, or something long term, such as a major hurricane that would disrupt communications for days.

Test alternate communication methods; try out VOIP in case it will still work for you, and send out some test Tweets. While you're at it, do the other things that the emergency services recommend in disaster situations. Have plenty of flashlights and batteries along with an adequate stock of first-aid supplies for your company. Stock up on bottled water. Most important, have a plan because you won't be able to phone home after the quake to find out what your plan should be. 


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