California Firestorms Reveal Wireless Network Fragility in Emergencies - Page 2

But Pai also told the story of a woman on an Indian reservation who was found dead, with her cell phone in her hand, after dialing for help 38 times. The cell service in her area had failed.

Communications policy can also make a huge difference. One thing you’ll notice when you travel outside the U.S., for example, is that wireless devices all use the same protocols, the same standards and the run on the same frequencies.

This means that a cell phone user in Germany, for example, can make calls on any network in the country. European policy requires carriers to allow roaming on all of those networks, so if you’re using T-Mobile, you can also use Vodafone and O2, as long as your phone supports the required frequencies, which most do.

In the U.S., if you’re a T-Mobile customer, you’re using the same protocols as AT&T, but if you happened to be in AT&T's network area, AT&T’s cell sites won’t accept your call. Likewise, if you’re a Sprint user you can’t use Verizon’s network, even though they share the same protocol.

What’s worse is that nearly every smartphone currently sold in the U.S. has the capability to use nearly any network in the country, but can’t because the carriers won’t allow it.

While it’s true that the carriers have the ability to set their cell sites to accept calls from any phone, this doesn’t always happen. Even when they do it’s not always immediate. This effectively means that without this redundancy you can find yourself without cell service, even in a heavily populated area.

Of course such service reliability would go a long way if the carriers made good decisions when building out their networks. This can mean not putting their switches in the basements of buildings where they could be flooded, which happened when New Orleans was swamped by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

It can also mean having microwave backup links for times when cables go out in a disaster. And of course it means having cell sites with backup power that can go for more than a few hours.

For your company, this redundancy requires planning so that you don’t find yourself depending one a form of communications that is vulnerable to a disaster. This can mean having a fiber communications link in addition to wireless. It can mean having the ability to use satellite communications. You can even incorporate a microwave or laser link between offices.

What’s most important is to do the planning, taking in likely natural and manmade events that can disrupt your critical business communications. While you can’t prevent the next wildfire, earthquake or hurricane, you can make sure you have the redundancy and resiliency to keep operating, and most of the time, that’s enough.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...