One of the most consistent reports to come out of Boston in the aftermath of the terrorist bombings in the crowds of spectators during the Boston Marathon is that their cell phones wouldn’t work. Immediately a few reporters in the media speculated that the authorities had ordered the cell phone networks to be shut down, perhaps to prevent further bombs from going off. But it wasn’t true.
True or not, these rumors continued to circulate as the reporters for the television networks said that this might be happening. Their speculation was supported by a story that appeared on the Associated Press newswire saying that such a shutdown did, in fact, take place. Reports of government action remained rampant after this, despite the fact that the AP quickly retracted the story.
In fact, while there were cell phone outages in Boston in the minutes after the bombings, this wasn’t the result of some government agency action, such as the time when managers of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system in San Francisco pulled the plug on cell phone service within its system in an attempt to quell protests.
Instead, what happened is what occurs whenever there’s a big emergency. Everybody tried to call at the same time, and the phone system can’t handle that. The same thing happened in August 2011 when the East Coast was rattled by a major earthquake and the phones went out.
Mobile phones went out in Boston for two reasons. The first was that everybody anywhere near Boston who knew someone who might conceivably be near the bombing site called to make sure that person was OK. Meanwhile, those people not calling their friends or relatives were trying to send out photos or videos of the event. The cell phone network gets overloaded in situations like that, and this happened in Boston.
The other thing that happened is that law enforcement and other first responders have a priority code that lets them get access to the cell network even if it means blocking another caller. First responders depend heavily on the wireless networks for emergency communications, which is another reason they didn’t order the networks shut down.
And in fact, the cell phone outage in Boston was much less severe than it has been in other emergencies. The reason? Cell companies had already added a huge amount of capacity in the area of the Boston Marathon and in other areas along the route of the race, and as a result the overload was brief. Sprint Nextel, a favorite service of first responders, explained it to eWEEK in an email from spokesperson Crystal Davis.
Mobile Network ‘Kill Switch’ Never Used in Boston Bombing Aftermath
“Minus some mild call blocking on our Boston network due to above-normal call volume and traffic, our service operated normally,” Davis said in her email. “When call blocking occurs, customers can still make and receive calls, but it might take a second or third attempt for the call to go through. In cases like this, we recommend that customers text rather than call. Text messages are more than likely to transmit with very minimal to no delay, and network capacity will be free for law enforcement, first responders and emergency medical personnel to utilize.”
Davis also explained why phone service was out for a shorter duration than has been the case in previous emergencies. “Sprint did augment capacity on its cell sites along the marathon route in preparation for the race, and voice levels did return to normal within a few hours—and as law enforcement and first responders cleared out the area as part of their emergency response.”
Verizon Wireless had done much the same thing, according to a statement on the company blog. “Verizon Wireless has been enhancing network voice capacity to enable additional calling in the Copley Square area of Boston,” Verizon spokesperson Tom Pica said in a prepared statement on the company Website. “Customers are advised to use text or email to free up voice capacity for public safety officials at the scene. There was no damage to the Verizon Wireless network, which is seeing elevated calling and data usage throughout the region since the explosions occurred.”
AT&T and T-Mobile could not be reached for comment regarding wireless service during the emergency.
Of course, plenty of rumors are still circulating despite exposure to the facts. There are conspiracy theorists who think that the U.S. government is trying to pull some kind of cell phone shutdown similar to what happened during the Arab Spring and the resulting unrest.
But the fact is there is no wireless network kill switch. While law enforcement authorities at all levels can certainly request that wireless carriers shutdown their networks, there is no centralized means of doing so. This means that any actual shutdown could take hours, and it would also mean that law enforcement officials would effectively cut off their own communications. Admittedly, government officials have done some dumb things in the past, and probably will in the future, but they certainly did not do so in Boston.