Can You Hear Me When It Counts?

In emergencies, wireless service is often the first thing to go. Here's a look at how Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile, Verizon and Cingular are shoring things up for the next big one. Unfortunately, these behemoths aren't working together.

To John Graves, wireless communications is a lot more than Verizon Wireless catchy "Can You Hear Me Now?" tag line. Its about emergency responders hearing one another when it counts.

Graves, program director for the Government Emergency Telecommunications Service, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, is one of the people trying to answer a key question revolving around wireless networks: Why are cellular networks among the first to fail during an emergency?

"In emergencies, its not just emergency workers using wireless, its everybody," said Graves in Arlington, Va. "Everybody wants to call home. People pick up the phone and make a lot of telephone calls. This causes the phone network, including wireless, to get congested."

According to Graves, the telephone network is built to have a call success rate of 99 percent on the busiest hour of the busiest day of the year. The problem: During national emergencies—think Hurricane Katrina and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks—that success rate can drop as low as 10 percent.

When wireless companies suffer outages due to equipment damage and lost connections to the public service telephone network, PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network) calls are routed to functioning networks, overloading them.

The challenge is closing that gap. The issue is on the front burner of everyone from the industry association CTIA, which had its Wireless IT & Entertainment conference in Los Angeles Sept. 12-14, to wireless carriers and first responders. The race is on to prepare for the next big emergency, and its not clear wireless companies can get it together due to interoperability, allegiance to serving customers and lack of communication among key players. As things stand today, there is no coordination among the companies preparing for the Next Big One. The bottom line: The industry may not be ready for the next emergency, whether it be a massive weather event, an earthquake, a terrorist attack or a pandemic.

In the meantime, each provider—ranging from Cingular Wireless to Sprint Nextel to Verizon Wireless to T-Mobile USA—is attacking the issue differently. Some are working to make sure that their networks can survive, others are making sure that they can coordinate the rebuilding process, and a few are focusing on the needs of first responders. "Always have a Plan B," said Josh Lonn, regional director of development for the South region at T-Mobile in Frisco, Texas. "We have to spread our risk as much as we can."

/zimages/2/113096.jpgThe companys Plan B: Assume the worst. T-Mobile had already moved important switches out of harms way months ahead of Hurricane Katrina. In addition, the company hardened its cell sites, installing generators in every location possible and creating redundant communications. T-Mobile, unlike the other wireless providers in the area, was safe because of advance planning. Even then, T-Mobile network technician Louie White had to protect a massive switch with plastic and endure the winds and rain whipping through the Galleria building in Metairie, La. The switch and White survived, enabling T-Mobile to provide wireless communications in New Orleans and the surrounding area.

Joe Farren, director of public affairs for CTIA, told eWEEK his organization is working closely with the Department of Homeland Security and has a disaster preparedness and recovery certification program to ensure "members have taken a number of steps to prove that theyre ready to respond to a disaster. So far, the big four national carriers have been certified," said Farren, whos based in Washington. "Others are going through the process as we speak."

Indeed, wireless giants are working to bolster networks ahead of the next emergency.

Sprint Nextel Vice President for Public Sector Programs Chris Hackett said the company, in Reston, Va., is eyeing vulnerable markets such as Florida and "hardening the cell sites." Hackett said the companys hardening program includes putting generators into every cell site possible and arranging for fuel. Hackett said the Nextel system, which provides the ability to talk directly from device to device without a switch, is critical for first responders, and he wants to make sure that cell service is maintained during an emergency.

Capacity crunch

According to industry experts, there are three things necessary to allow people to communicate during an emergency: Keeping existing capacity running, adding capacity where possible and prioritizing communications steps such as hardening cell sites and switches, which is already under way by wireless carriers. Placing critical equipment out of harms way and having workers on standby are also important in keeping existing communications running.

Because there is more demand for communications during an emergency, capacity is critical, said experts. Using temporary cell sites to supplement or replace the existing infrastructure and adding alternate forms of communications such as amateur radio also can take the load off the commercial communications system.

Perhaps the most challenging part of the equation in ensuring critical communications take place is cultivating a willingness among commercial operators to modify their phone systems to give users with critical needs priority. Graves is also in charge of the WPS (Wireless Priority Service), a program for prioritizing wireless traffic. Graves said that on 9/11, there was already a priority service in place for wired phones but that capability was lacking for wireless phones. The White House then ordered a wireless priority service. He said that within two months, T-Mobile and then Cingular were able to provide wireless priority in New York and Washington. "It took a year for the first carrier, T-Mobile, to offer nationwide service," Graves said.

Graves said that now all GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) carriers offer nationwide WPS access. "We have Cingular, T-Mobile and Nextel since IDEN [Integrated Digital Enhanced Network] is basically GSM," he said. Its taken longer for the CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) carriers to offer WPS, and, so far, only Verizon Wireless has the service available nationwide. Graves said that Sprint will start next spring.

In the United States, the WPS works by managing the queue for calls coming into the wireless network, or calls to a wireless phone. If theres a wait for a slot on the cell, the WPS system puts the highest priority calls in the queue first. However, WPS does not bump existing calls in the United States, even though it has the capability to do so.

/zimages/2/28571.gifTo read about what CTIA is doing to prepare for emergencies, click here.

Ultimately, Graves is responsible for providing communications services to support the continuity of government. To accomplish this, the National Communications System, the government organization that makes sure that wireless carriers are able to work together, helps set the standards.

Expanding the communications capability can mean either adding more cell sites or providing better access to land lines. Depending on the nature of the emergency, expanding access to land lines may be problematic. "Mother Nature is pretty hard to outsmart," said Bill Smith, chief technology officer for Atlanta-based BellSouth, which was hit hard during Hurricane Katrina. "Well-prepared doesnt mean youre invincible," said Smith, noting that BellSouth thought it was prepared for a disaster, but the company wasnt ready for a major underwater cable to be taken out.

When capacity is severed, wireless companies are left with mobile cell sites, provided they can be connected to sites with switches. These mobile facilities called COWs (cell on wheels) or COLTs (cell on light trucks) can be driven into an area where coverage is needed and put into operation. In some cases, they can connect to a terrestrial T-1 line and, in other cases, use a microwave or satellite link. Nextel, for example, has a dedicated satellite COLT thats designed for long-term operation in a remote area and can be driven to the place where its needed, locked down and left to run on its own. T-Mobile, on the other hand, has even developed a "Cell on Hummer" in which the company can provide cell service anywhere a Hummer H1 can go.

Next Page: The carriers lay out their plans.

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...