When Wireless Is Powerless

For the second time in three years, New Yorkers saw their cell phones become paperweights with service plans when they needed them most. Will wireless ever be robust enough for use during disasters, and are there any alternatives?

Compared with the horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001, the was a mere inconvenience for millions of New Yorkers. However, there was one thing the two emergencies had in common. Cell phones mostly stopped working, or at least their voice features did. For hours after the blackout began, I was able to maintain contact with friends on the West Coast on my T-Mobile Sidekick. However, as I could not complete a call to my voicemail, I watched in frustration as the number of concerned voicemail messages continued to rise.

Even the Sidekicks data features didnt withstand the long walk home. Once I reached the Queensborough Bridge, I lost the signal completely, and it didnt return until the next morning. While the initial loss of voice features was likely due to an overwhelming surge in traffic, the ultimate signal loss was probably caused by a power failure to a cell site. Even without a signal, though, cell phones werent completely useless. Many of their screens and keypads are now illuminated so brightly that people were using them as ersatz flashlights.

Still, the failure of cell phones as communication tools during emergencies is a major roadblock for the ambitions of wireless executives like AT&T Wirelesss John Zeglis, who see cannibalizing landlines as the next growth area for the technology. Sept. 11 demonstrated that a combination of network disruptions and high traffic could affect even the venerable landline telephone. However, landlines are still far more resilient than wireless connections and remained intact during the blackout. Indeed, people lined up to use what many have derided as a relic best remembered as Supermans dressing room: the phone booth.

Its unlikely that things will improve for cell-phone users of the major carriers, many of which saw their traffic increase four to five times normal usage after the blackout. The landline phone system was overengineered by an awesome monopoly. In contrast, cellular carriers are saddled with debt and are uninterested in building out capacity that everyone hopes will never be necessary. While new wireless technologies offer traffic-handling improvements, carriers are likely to use increased bandwidth for multimedia features and more cost-effective service rather than increasing voice capacity. However, traffic jams dont last forever, and carriers should install some kind of backup power source for more of the cell sites, much like hospitals do.


As the Blackberry taught us on Sept. 11, the best bet for remaining in touch wirelessly during a crisis seems to be a variation on the strategy of "security through obscurity." In this case, the security is the feeling of security brought by a reliable connection. Using the relatively lightly trafficked Mobitex network, Blackberries were able to communicate while other wireless devices balked. However, now that RIM is pushing Blackberry on the same networks used by other cell phones, that advantage will disappear. One way to avoid both the traffic and cell site problems might be to use a satellite phone like those from Iridium. These resilient phones are so expensive that theyve been relegated to the military, but Ill be happy to give you one for free if you contact me via my new disaster-resistant telegraph.

Has the vulnerability of cell phones during emergencies caused you to minimize your reliance on them? E-mail me.

Wireless Supersite Editor Ross Rubin is a senior analyst at eMarketer. He has researched wireless communications since 1994 and has been covering technology since 1989.

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