Why Relying on Cellphones is a Terrible Idea in a Crisis

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First responders don’t have magic cellphones that work during emergencies. Neither do homeland security or other federal agents.

John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology and government. He is currently the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys

Last weekend, many of my friends and family decided to attend that unprecedented event that swept through downtown Washington, dominating the news and headlines. No, not that one. I am talking about the Women's March on Washington.

Originally planned and permitted for 250,000 people, a respectable number to be sure, it ballooned to at least twice that, and probably more depending on whom you ask. And while I’m not sure if recently inaugurated President Donald Trump heard the protesters’ message, I do know one thing: He wouldn’t have been able to take a call from them.

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I’ve been testing cellular phone technology for a very long time. I used to be The Washington Post’s “Can you hear me now?” guy who would head out once a year armed with cellphones from every network (there were a couple more back then).

I would spend the next several days visiting 58 sites around the region, everywhere from the Navy Yards to a Maryland shopping mall to White’s Ferry out in the wilds of Loudoun County. I would stop at each location and make a series of calls on each phone to a recorded line so I could monitor the call quality and success rates. The results were published in a big four-page color spread in the middle of the paper each year, complete with a map of my results and a feature I would write about my experiences on the trial.

It was exhausting but fun work, and I learned a lot about what cellular technology could do and about its many limitations. It’s also why I, unlike quite a few of my friends, still maintain and pay for a landline in my home. Because as good as the technology is, it’s not 100 percent reliable and less so during a major crisis when you may need it most.

Back to my friends at the Women’s March. They planned to communicate with each other—if they got separated—using their cellphones. But I advised them to avoid that.

One of the biggest limitations of the technology is that when too many people try to use a cellular tower or base station at the same time, it can’t process every call. Everyone’s phone downtown that day probably showed a full signal, which is true because their phones were detecting it, but they were still not able to make calls.

Error messages like “not registered on network,” “call blocked” or “network busy” were commonly reported. A few people got calls through, but only sporadically.

With that many people in one spot, data and text also were getting blocked. I eventually started getting texts from friends, but they were all coming in between one and three hours late. Likely, their phones just kept trying to send, and eventually, would find a little bit of a hole to jam a couple kilobytes through the chaos.

While not as overloading to a cellular system as an event like the march, the same thing can and does happen during emergencies. Base stations are set up assuming a certain percentage of the people who live and work in the area will be using their devices at the same time.

In a city, those calculations tend to be high. However, when an emergency happens, even a minor one like the 2011 D.C. earthquake, what do people do? They take out their cellphones, call loved ones, snap pictures and video for posting or try to get information about what is going on. When 100 percent of the people in an area suddenly try to use their phones, it’s going to overload the system, like happened during and just after the quake.  

So here is the scary thing about that: First responders don’t have magic cellphones that work during emergencies. Neither do homeland security or other federal agents. Many have radio networks with limited users that work at all times, but they are not yet interoperable, meaning federal agencies can’t use them to talk with one another, and certainly not to coordinate with state and local police or firefighters. The DHS Interoperable Communications Act became law in 2015, which requires agencies be able to talk with one another during a crisis, but feds still have a long way to go before that becomes a reality.

Trying to loop state and local first responders into a unified system is an even bigger task and in its infancy. That mission is the job of The First Responder Network Authority, or FirstNet, an independent agency overseeing development of a nationwide broadband network for first responders.

Funded though the 2012 Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act with an initial $7 billion and a block of radio spectrum, FirstNet has the seemingly impossible task of building out an infrastructure with a core network plus regional and national data centers with backhaul from Radio Access Networks. It will provide data and voice communications in the 700 MHz band reserved for first responders.

Oh, and they have to figure out how to pay for it all as the project is estimated to cost up to $42 billion. At least, they have founded a test lab to try and find a solution and experiment with new technology.

My friends communicated downtown during the march using a $12 solution, a set of four GI Joe walkie-talkies I equipped them with before their trip. Sure, such a system could have easily been overloaded if thousands of other protesters brought them along, too, but nobody seemed similarly equipped, allowing my group to split up at one point and easily find one another again later. The technology worked even with cellular service totally jammed.

Cellphone technology is amazing, but it has its limitations. While the Women’s March on Washington brought up vitally important issues, it also incidentally demonstrated the need for FirstNet to be a success. Our first responders need to be able to communicate, with each other and outside agencies, regardless of the conditions or the number of people also in the area, especially if those people need help. I can’t think of any other technology where its upgrading is so vitally needed, or which could have such a positive and immediate effect on our nation.

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