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Wireless Networking Cellphones Communications

Why It's So Hard To Make a Phone Call In Emergency Situations 179

Posted by Soulskill
from the everybody-has-the-same-idea-at-the-same-time dept.
antdude writes "BoingBoing reports on why it's 'so hard to make a phone call in emergency situations.' Quoting: '[The thing about] the radios is that they have different sizes of cells. You've got regular cells and then smaller sub-cells. You also have larger overlay macro-cells that are really big. They try to handle you within the small cell you're closest to. But it's a trade off between capacity — they'd like to have lots of small cells for that — and coverage — they don't want to put 100k small cells everywhere. So you might have a cell that covers a mile ara and then smaller cells within that that handle most of the traffic. ... In the end, it does come down to trade-offs. That's true of any network. You're interested in coverage first and then capacity. If you wanted to guarantee that a network never had an outage your capital investment would have to go up orders of magnitude beyond anything that is rational. So each network is trying to invest their budget in ways that make network appear to perform better. The cost of providing temporary extra capacity for the Boston Marathon, that's something that's in the budget and they plan for that event. But when you get something unexpected like a terrorist event, or an earthquake, or damage from a hurricane or tornado, then you have trade offs between capital and how robust your network is. Every time you have an event people say, "Oh, they didn't invest enough." But you look at New York City after Hurricane Sandy and Southern Manhattan was under 6 feet of water — all the buried infrastructure was lost.'"
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Why It's So Hard To Make a Phone Call In Emergency Situations

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  • Summary? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 17, 2013 @01:51PM (#43475335)

    I realize that TFS is a copy & paste job, but WTF? Whomever was quoted shouldn't be allowed to use a phone ever just because they can't speak coherently.

    • Does that mean I can't use my shoes because I am constantly tripping?
      • by gl4ss (559668)

        Does that mean I can't use my shoes because I am constantly tripping?

        well if you wear clown shoes you should probably buy normal shoes.

        but this article is stupid because it's redundant, it just tells on rough scale how cellphone networks work. calls to 911 get prioritized.

    • I realize that TFS is a copy & paste job, but WTF? Whomever was quoted shouldn't be allowed to use a phone ever just because they can't speak coherently.

      Finally, several other countries have implemented all sorts of special procedures for cell phone networks in emergencies (The UK, Israel, Lebanon, and Egypt all come to mind). These sometimes include shutting down cell services once a bombing occurs, but in some of these cases also include using the local version of E-911 as a priority search mechanism for people possibly trapped in rubble after a building bomb or an earthquake, and various other services that mean the system as a whole needs to stay up and

    • by hawguy (1600213)

      I realize that TFS is a copy & paste job, but WTF? Whomever was quoted shouldn't be allowed to use a phone ever just because they can't speak coherently.

      Here's a summary of the summary:

      During a disaster there are too many people trying to make calls and not enough cell sites for them all. More cell sites cost more money. Cell sites that are damaged by a disaster don't work.

      But doesn't everyone already know that?

  • pay phones (Score:4, Insightful)

    by schneidafunk (795759) on Wednesday April 17, 2013 @01:51PM (#43475343)
    Pay phones will still work in emergencies. I recall that being a reason for their continued existence in the era of mobile phones.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      The POTS (plain old telephone system, for the young whippersnappers) didn't have unlimited capacity to connect calls either. When many calls were in progress in an area, you could pick up the phone and hear the congestion tone right away. Conversely, if you tried to call an area where many calls were in progress, you'd hear the congestion tone before you'd finished dialing. Only with the internet has it become possible that everyone can talk to someone from a different area at the same time, and only if the

      • Re:pay phones (Score:5, Informative)

        by Obfuscant (592200) on Wednesday April 17, 2013 @03:12PM (#43476277)

        The POTS (plain old telephone system, for the young whippersnappers) didn't have unlimited capacity to connect calls either. When many calls were in progress in an area, you could pick up the phone and hear the congestion tone right away.

        That's in the days of computer phone switches. In the old days of mechanical relays, there were a fixed, limited number of dialtone generators (and first selectors -- the stepper that handled the first digit you dialed), so if local capacity was reached you just didn't get a dialtone right away.

        You still hear this today, but usually after you dial. It's the fast busy signal. The fast busy means circuits are busy, try again. The slow busy means the destination line is busy. If you try a fast busy again right away, chances are good you'll get through, and you'll confuse the person who answers if you accuse them of being on the line when you called a minute ago.

        Mother's Day was a big holiday for calling, so it was more likely to hear, or not hear, this happening then.

        • by hguorbray (967940)
          not to mention during disasters such as the Loma Prieta earthquake (of which I was about 7 miles from the epicenter) when I don't believe we even had a dial tone for the first day on residential lines (although there were a lot of lines down in the Morgan Hill-Gilroy area fwiw).

          -I'm just sayin'
      • by imlepid (214300)

        Yes, I agree completely. The summary spoke exclusively of cell phones (although the title didn't say so), even the land line phone system will crash under the load during an emergency situation or other unexpected event.

        I once tried to call my father (who was at his work) from our home (land line to land line) immediately after a moderate earthquake [wikipedia.org]. The call would not go through because all the lines were taken up. We managed to complete the call and speak to each other after waiting about 15 minutes. Capa

    • by alen (225700)

      same network capacity issues
      and you have to wait in line to use it

    • Ever try to find a pay phone these days?
    • by JWSmythe (446288)

      A what?? I haven't seen a payphone in years. In older buildings, I've seen the kiosks where they once resided. In most airports, they've been replaced with kiosks for using laptops.

      Even still, in the pre-cell phone era, a large enough emergency would saturate phone lines, and lines at the payphones would be huge.

      I live in the Southeast US. Before cell phones were popular, the phones were frequently unusable, either due to everyone calling to make sure each o

    • good luck holding your breath long enough to make the call - pay phones were under water in NY after Sandy while the underground vaults and tunnels the many cables ran in were flooded

    • by tehcyder (746570)
      What's a payphone, grandpa?
  • by KernelMuncher (989766) on Wednesday April 17, 2013 @01:53PM (#43475361)
    Anytime you have a large population in a small area all wanting to make calls, the system will be overloaded. Capacity is built for normal use (which is probably 95 or 99% of normal call volume). When there are spikes in demand exceeding this volume, the network will not work as well (or even fail). Also if the network is physically damaged (such as Hurricane Sandy) it won't carry even normal call volumes. How is this not common sesne ?
    • by rwa2 (4391) * on Wednesday April 17, 2013 @02:06PM (#43475517) Homepage Journal

      Yep, pretty much have cell phone congestion during any large crowd event, such as parades and concerts and demonstrations.

      All it would really take is some sort of public education campaign to use SMS in those situations.

      911 does take SMS nowadays, does it not? If not, I hear SMS to Twitter / Facebook has been useful for getting people to reach out to their friends for help, who can in turn call an emergency response number... somewhere.

      • by geekoid (135745)

        Or to get the public to not immediately call to tell everyone you are fine. IN cases like Boston, waiting an hour would have helped a great deal.

        Yes, people will be worried, but be a little selfless and give way to people who need help.

    • by Artifakt (700173)

      There's been a hell of a lot of money spent on homeland security since 2001. That same common sense you invoke is what leads most of us to expect some of those literal trillions went into raising emergency capacity above the normal use limits, and it's also common sense to think that a place such as Boston would be fairly high on the list of areas to shore up. (Especially since there were specific ties to Boston in the original event that inspired all that spending).

      • by Lumpy (12016)

        "There's been a hell of a lot of money utterly wasted with homeland security since 2001."

        Fixed that for you.. you seemed to have made a very common mistake assuming that the money was spent well and not blown on completely useless things.

    • by nine-times (778537) <nine.times@gmail.com> on Wednesday April 17, 2013 @02:46PM (#43475967) Homepage

      I think everyone understands this, even if not on a technical level. Anything has an upper limit, beyond which is overloads.

      I think the main question in my mind is, what our we comfortable with as a failure of our infrastructure? Maybe we say, "We're ok with the cell phone network going out during an emergency, since those emergencies will be rare and the cost of making the network robust and redundant enough to handle the additional volume isn't worth being able to use your cell phone in an emergency." But then are we really ok with that? If we have a bombing in a major city and people can't really report what's going on because our telecommunications can't handle the strain, is that really alright?

      There may be other options, of course. Maybe we want to rethink the design of the cell network to see if we can come up with something than handles the load better and reroutes in case of congestion. Or maybe we just want to figure out a way to prioritize certain traffic so "Important" calls go through while the rest fail. Those things are both easier said than done, but they're other ways to approach the problem.

      The problem I see with these kinds of problems is that everyone wants to have their cake and eat it too. They say, "Well why should we waste money building out the network to protect us from a problem that's unlikely to happen?" But unlikely things happen all the time, and when one of them causes a problem, they scream, "WHY DIDN'T WE SEE THIS COMING?" We did see this coming. We decided it wasn't cost-effective to protect ourselves. Pay more attention.

      • Maybe we want to rethink the design of the cell network to see if we can come up with something than handles the load better and reroutes in case of congestion.

        You have a vast misunderstanding of how the world works... Congestion isn't caused by bad routing, it's caused by too much traffic in too small an area in too short a time for the available capacity to handle. You can't reroute into or out of a congested area - because there aren't any routes to be had.

        Or maybe we just want to figure out a

        • You have a vast misunderstanding of how the world works... Congestion isn't caused by bad routing, it's caused by too much traffic in too small an area

          What part of "rethink the design of the cell phone network" didn't you understand? The point is that the current design can't do this kind of thing, but a very different design might be able to. For example, think about the difference between the designs of FTP and Bittorrent. One gets congested when you add too much traffic. The other gets faster.

          Yes, taken as an average and across the whole country - unlikely events happen on a semi-regular basis.

          Yes, exactly my point. Unlikely events are *extremely* common. What makes them "unlikely" is that you don't know which unlikely event will happen where at w

          • What part of "rethink the design of the cell phone network" didn't you understand?

            What part of "you have no clue how the universe works" didn't you understand? This has nothing to do with the design of the cell phone network - it's endemic to all networks.

            For example, think about the difference between the designs of FTP and Bittorrent. One gets congested when you add too much traffic. The other gets faster.

            ROTFLMAO. More traffic means congestion, regardless of the protocol. As above, you have n

            • What, are you 12 years old, or just terribly dim?
            • Bitttorrent gets faster not because there is more traffic, but because there are more seeds - widely distributed across the net.

              Yes, similar to how distributed mesh networks become more robust as you add more clients, not less so.

              True - but utterly irrelevant because in the real world in a specific place - unlikely events are unlikely.

              We're talking about how we design and build national infrastructure, so the likelihood of there being some problem somewhere in the nation becomes suddenly relevant.

              We don't build systems to withstand an aggregate chance

              And that's why we see so many catastrophic failures, because people like you don't understand proper risk management.

      • by khallow (566160)

        Maybe we say, "We're ok with the cell phone network going out during an emergency, since those emergencies will be rare and the cost of making the network robust and redundant enough to handle the additional volume isn't worth being able to use your cell phone in an emergency." But then are we really ok with that? If we have a bombing in a major city and people can't really report what's going on because our telecommunications can't handle the strain, is that really alright?

        Why do you think the answer would be anything other than "yes, it's ok"? We don't rely on the cell phone network in an emergency. Nor do we want to pay a lot extra just so that we can phone home from more emergencies. There's a huge cost here associated with this additional capacity (especially given the variety of disasters which can take out cell network capacity).

        But unlikely things happen all the time, and when one of them causes a problem, they scream, "WHY DIDN'T WE SEE THIS COMING?"

        That's what politicians are for. They'll take this VERY SERIOUSLY and not actually do anything once it is revealed how expensive a fix would be

        • We don't rely on the cell phone network in an emergency.

          That's not so clear. I've seen more and more people ditching their landline and using the cell phone for everything, including emergencies. In the coming years, cell phones may even gain in prominence in our telecommunications infrastructure.

          What if a building collapses and you're stuck in the rubble. You still have your cell phone and can make a phone call. Do you want to be unable to call for help because too many people are making phone calls talking about the building collapse?

          In the case of the B

          • by khallow (566160)

            Do you want to be unable to call for help because too many people are making phone calls talking about the building collapse?

            What will that cell phone do for you within a few minutes of a building collapse? You could always call a couple of hours later when things die down and emergency communication equipment gets set up. You wouldn't be going anywhere anyway.

            And if the cell network is dependent on the building standing (say because the nearby cell towers were on top of the building or some other collapsed building), you might not have that network available anyway due directly to the disaster or attack in question.

            In the case of the Boston bombing, what if you saw something that was both important and time-sensitive, but couldn't call out?

            I guess yo

            • What will that cell phone do for you within a few minutes of a building collapse? You could always call a couple of hours later when things die down and emergency communication equipment gets set up. You wouldn't be going anywhere anyway.

              Well you could be losing blood, for example.

              And if the cell network is dependent on the building standing (say because the nearby cell towers were on top of the building or some other collapsed building), you might not have that network available anyway due directly to the disaster or attack in question.

              So we shouldn't care if our cell phone network will fail in emergencies for one reason because it might possibly fail for other reasons? That's not very sensible. It's like saying, "Why should I wear my seatbelt when my car doesn't even have airbags?"

              The whole post sounds like you're searching for reasons for me to be wrong without having a real argument.

              • by khallow (566160)

                Well you could be losing blood, for example.

                Sucks to be you then. I still don't get why these contrived scenarios are supposed to justify spending a lot of money beefing up cell phone coverage. It is rare for an activity to be completely absent of benefit for anyone.

                So we shouldn't care if our cell phone network will fail in emergencies for one reason because it might possibly fail for other reasons? That's not very sensible. It's like saying, "Why should I wear my seatbelt when my car doesn't even have airbags?"

                No. I can't see that analogy. I think it's more like saying that putting a lot of money into beefing up a cell phone network still has the major problem that there are a variety of disasters that could take down the cell network anyway. You then have to spend even more money to achieve so

                • Sucks to be you then. I still don't get why these contrived scenarios are supposed to justify spending a lot of money beefing up cell phone coverage. It is rare for an activity to be completely absent of benefit for anyone.

                  My whole point, as stated several times, is that we should be honest about the decision we're making. If you want to say, "It's not worth the money to have our telephone infrastructure robust enough to continue to operate during an emergency," then I'm not convinced that you're wrong.

                  However, let's be clear about it. Let's not say, "Well, emergencies never really happen and nobody needs a telephone during an emergency." That's dishonest. To give an alternate example, if you said, "It's not worth loweri

                  • by khallow (566160)

                    However, let's be clear about it. Let's not say, "Well, emergencies never really happen and nobody needs a telephone during an emergency." That's dishonest.

                    I note that wasn't what was said. If we're going to be "clear" about this, here's what was originally said:

                    Anytime you have a large population in a small area all wanting to make calls, the system will be overloaded. Capacity is built for normal use (which is probably 95 or 99% of normal call volume). When there are spikes in demand exceeding this volume, the network will not work as well (or even fail). Also if the network is physically damaged (such as Hurricane Sandy) it won't carry even normal call volumes. How is this not common sesne ?

                    To that, you wrote:

                    Maybe we say, "We're ok with the cell phone network going out during an emergency, since those emergencies will be rare and the cost of making the network robust and redundant enough to handle the additional volume isn't worth being able to use your cell phone in an emergency." But then are we really ok with that? If we have a bombing in a major city and people can't really report what's going on because our telecommunications can't handle the strain, is that really alright?

                    And I wrote in turn:

                    Why do you think the answer would be anything other than "yes, it's ok"? We don't rely on the cell phone network in an emergency. Nor do we want to pay a lot extra just so that we can phone home from more emergencies. There's a huge cost here associated with this additional capacity (especially given the variety of disasters which can take out cell network capacity).

                    So to be clear, no one made the assertion you mention above.

                    But don't try to argue, "Well going 25 mph is just as safe and car crashes never really happen anyway."

                    As I recall the analogous case in question was a building collapsing on you in a large scale disaster. In that case, having the ability to make an immediate call worked only if a) you were conscious at the time and yet bleeding to death, and b) the overwhelmed emergency services could somehow get to you q

                    • I note that wasn't what was said. If we're going to be "clear" about this, here's what was originally said:

                      And then you quote a bunch of stuff as though you hadn't really read any of it. First, I wasn't saying you specifically said that, but you are among many people making statements similar to that. You claim you never said, "nobody needs a telephone during an emergency." and yet you quote yourself saying, "We don't rely on the cell phone network in an emergency."

                      That's a very contrived situation.

                      It's one example of how a cell phone might help you in an emergency. That situation might be rare, but if you start aggregating all of the possibl

                    • by khallow (566160)

                      You claim you never said, "nobody needs a telephone during an emergency." and yet you quote yourself saying, "We don't rely on the cell phone network in an emergency."

                      And I was right. Those two statements have very different meanings. Emergency crews, firefighters, and police, the bulk of the official response to disaster and such, for example, rely on radio not on cell phones. I already addressed most of your issues in my previous post, but I'll highlight a few things.

                      It's one example of how a cell phone might help you in an emergency. That situation might be rare, but if you start aggregating all of the possible rare emergency situations where a cell phone might be helpful, I think you'll find that it's probably not such a rare thing. Plus, it's not much more contrived to say, "maybe you'd be injured by conscious and emergency services wouldn't know where to look for you," than to say, "well maybe emergency services would find you if you banged on something." They're trained to listen for noise, not because they'll necessarily be able to find anyone making noise, but because *they have nothing else to go on*.

                      These things are rare. We don't have to speculate, we just look at the occurrence of actual large scale emergencies that overwhelm the local cell network infrastructure.

                      These disasters include a considerable subset which damages or destroys the cell phone network.

                      First, that seems like a big assumption with no evidence behind it.

                      The world has had earthquakes, tsun

                    • Emergency crews, firefighters, and police, the bulk of the official response to disaster and such, for example, rely on radio not on cell phones.

                      Right, so you're claiming that telephones are unimportant during an emergency.

                      These things are rare. We don't have to speculate, we just look at the occurrence of actual large scale emergencies that overwhelm the local cell network infrastructure.

                      How rare? I ask because I'm pretty sure you're just making this up. And what about other unrelated things that happen during an emergency? Someone bombs Boston, and what about a robbery that happens at the same time? Any one scenario is rare, but when you add up all the various possible rare scanarios, are they really so unrealistic?

                      The world has had earthquakes, tsunami, landslides, riots, explosions and fires, and power outages and such. These routinely take out cell network infrastructure.

                      Those aren't the only emergencies that overwhelm cellphone networks, and those events don't al

                    • by khallow (566160)

                      Emergency crews, firefighters, and police, the bulk of the official response to disaster and such, for example, rely on radio not on cell phones.

                      Right, so you're claiming that telephones are unimportant during an emergency.

                      No, I merely noted that actual emergency workers don't rely on them. And given that the cell network currently can go down during a large scale emergency (not just any emergency), cell phones can't be currently an important part of large scale emergency response.

                      Let us recall that my reply was to your previous and very different characterization of my statements as "nobody needs a telephone during an emergency". You might need all sorts of things that aren't there in an emergency. For example, if you're

                    • This story [computerworld.com] indicates that "unusual events" happen a few times a year

                      "A few times a year" is pretty common in my book. And let's not forget that even if the outage is precipitated by a normal holiday, that doesn't preclude the possibility that people would be having emergencies during that time, and be prevented from calling for help.

                      Everything I've read implies that expanding them to handle rare emergency loads costs a lot and there just isn't a good case for spending that kind of money.

                      This is exactly what I find to be dishonest about the way you talk, right here: "there just isn't a good case". Obviously there's a good case. It could save lives. Not just "could", but "almost certainly would". If it's too expensive to jus

    • by Darinbob (1142669)

      And this stuff happened even before mobile phones. The switching systems get overloaded if most of the traffic goes to one place instead of being spread out.

    • by evilviper (135110)

      Anytime you have a large population in a small area all wanting to make calls, the system will be overloaded.

      That's not necessarily true. The lower the frequencies in-use, the further over the horizon your cell signal can go, and therefore be load-balanced by possibly numerous cell towers.

      In a rural area, sure, there's probably only one other tower in range. But in an urban area like Boston, there's tons of cell towers around, which could absorb the sudden spike in demand from that "small area" if properl

    • by aaarrrgggh (9205)

      What isn't common sense (but TFS couldn't communicate) is the fact that the cells are call-limited; they reduce range when they are over subscribed. Usually, the fringes are all that is impacted, so you switch to the other cell site which isn't overloaded. But, with enough activity you create substantial coverage gaps in a city.

  • The ADSL modem I recently got has a 'free wifi' mode which works with a password you receive at the same time than the modem, and you can use it on ANY modem from the same provider in the country. It uses a secondary channel as your own private (and protected) wifi. It's a great idea. But why don't they extend that and use the ADSL modem as a conduit for 3G/GSM/... cell ? It's probably mostly a software problem, then use the user's internet line to carry the info (without charging the user of course). Withi
    • by autocracy (192714)

      Because I'd put something behind the modem and rate-limit, filter, or otherwise alter the traffic. The quality of the service still isn't guaranteed without some agreement.

    • by loufoque (1400831)

      It's not a software problem, it's a legal one.

  • Resilience (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Todd Knarr (15451) on Wednesday April 17, 2013 @02:10PM (#43475551) Homepage

    Part of it's not just whether the network fails, but how it fails. For instance, in a situation like this the network might be reconfigured to reject incoming calls to the area to keep that capacity free for people calling out. It might start throttling back voice calls to free up that capacity for emergency services and keep the data portion of the network running (and maybe drop the data portion back to 3G or even 2G so it could handle more simultaneous users). You wouldn't be able to call out, but you could still send and receive text messages. And the process for this should be in place. This kind of thing is rare and you can't predict when it'll happen, but it's a given that it will happen so the network operators should have a plan in place for what to do when it does.

    And they should also be looking back to Ma Bell's studies on how to staff operators to handle phone calls. They found through a lot of study of real-world traffic that you can't staff for the average volume and successfully handle the calls. Calls tended to cluster, so if you wanted to keep wait times acceptable you had to staff for the peak volumes and accept that that meant you'd have idle capacity a lot of the time. I often get the feeling that the engineering side of the carriers understands this, but the business side doesn't quite grasp the idea of call volume not being a normal distribution.

    • by Todd Knarr (15451)

      Bleh. Addendum: part of the process should be an indicator on the phone that means "network service degraded". Half the problem seems to be people being unclear on the fact that the network's being swamped. A visible indication on the phone won't help the deliberately oblivious, but it at least gives those with 2 working brain cells firing in sync a clear indication that yes the carrier knows about the situation, yes they're doing what they can, no you can't expect normal operation right now so just be pati

    • During the Cold War there was a telco exchange in Northern Virginia (I forget the number) that if you dialed through would give your call Federal precedence. It was used by Congress/Senate and high up Federal employees. In the case of a national emergency, those calls would be routed first and others dropped to make way for them. This idea is nothing new. I'm sure something similar exists today with 911 or similar.
    • by Kjella (173770)

      I often get the feeling that the engineering side of the carriers understands this, but the business side doesn't quite grasp the idea of call volume not being a normal distribution.

      No, they just want to know who's paying and if nobody is then they're going to let it fail. For many years on New Year's Eve the cell phone system choked, everybody knew it would happen but were people willing to pay for that one night in the year? Were people going to switch providers based on that day's performance? Hell no, nobody cared that their "Happy New Year" text arrived at 6AM instead of midnight. Same for every other place that is full, sold out or whatever - they're passing up business because i

    • And they should also be looking back to Ma Bell's studies on how to staff operators to handle phone calls. They found through a lot of study of real-world traffic that you can't staff for the average volume and successfully handle the calls. Calls tended to cluster, so if you wanted to keep wait times acceptable you had to staff for the peak volumes and accept that that meant you'd have idle capacity a lot of the time. I often get the feeling that the engineering side of the carriers understands this, but t

    • by guruevi (827432)

      Most people think that falling back onto 3G, 2G or 1G would save bandwidth but the opposite is through, the later the generation, the more efficient the data transfer becomes. 4G networks (which are as of yet unavailable in the US) are purely packet-based (voice and data) and can handle much more voice channels over a lot smaller radio bandwidth.

      The problem is that the US is quickly falling behind to 3rd world standards on all aspects of society and technology.

  • The one time we really need technology to do something besides email imgur links or annoy people on Twitter, it fails. Probably best anyway as most of the traffic I saw was just "ZOMG..first post.." drama anyway.

  • by sootman (158191) on Wednesday April 17, 2013 @02:44PM (#43475941) Homepage Journal

    Why It's So Hard For a Crowd To Leave a Burning Building Through The Only Exit Doors.

    I mean really, WTF?

  • NCS/GETS (Score:4, Informative)

    by Hartree (191324) on Wednesday April 17, 2013 @02:47PM (#43475987)

    In fact, this very problem is why there is a US government program that lets certain emergency personnel/offices have priority over normal telephone traffic.

    This is also why we don't normally see phone numbers in the 710 area code.

    See: http://gets.ncs.gov/program_info.html [ncs.gov] for an overview.

    (Wow, I feel like I'm back on comp.dcom.telecom)

  • Why is that so hard. We just need an emergency network for our phones is all. Why tie up the basic services?

  • the capacity problem (Score:4, Interesting)

    by nimbius (983462) on Wednesday April 17, 2013 @03:15PM (#43476305) Homepage
    gets shit thrown at it from both sides. providers dont feel the need to invest in more towers and users understandably get angry when this problem manifests in dropped calls and network outages.

    to curtail the issue, emergency coverage services like COW and COLT (Cellular on Wheels, Cellular on Light Truck) have been bastardized by carriers to augment connectivity for sports events and serve as standby relays during repairs. COW and COLT were designed by the industries to respond to hurricanes and tornados but the allure of having a tower-on-wheels it understandably too budget-friendly for any carrier to pass up. oversubscription and markup are what keep cellular industries alive, just like shared hosting or airlines.
    the other issue is as TFA highlights, cellular is just not as robust as say, 25 core ASTRO multi-zone digital radio...arguably because the need just isnt there. if 1 in 5 people cant make contact during an emergency its not a problem, cellphones can be borrowed or the calls can be retried. in law enforcement and emergency services, the PTT button has to work every time no matter what, as a loss of service could result in an emergency turning into a catastrophe.

    finally, what i consider 'dark devices' can also create an outage automatically. fire alarms, burglary alarms, and even SIGALERT and some EAS systems (yes, EAS, its cost saving/kickback jack-assery found in flyover states all the time.) for the city/state are critically dependent on cellular networks. in the event of an emergency the activation of hundreds of these devices at once can black out the network pretty fast.
  • I keep my amateur radio license up to date and I carry an HT with me all the time. You never know.
  • by SuperBanana (662181) on Wednesday April 17, 2013 @04:26PM (#43477041)
    When a bomb goes off, you do NOT need to call everyone you know to say "OMG I'm OK!!!!!!" Seriously - the panic is the problem, not the network. Unless you're hurt and need help, put the phone away and keep the airwaves clear for emergency responders - maybe text ONE person and say "hey can you put up on my FB wall that I'm ok?" In fact, go one step further and put your phone into airplane mode and save your battery life, because in a real emergency, charging the phone is going to be a bigger problem. At the very least, disable syncing services. It was amazing how many people thought it was necessary to call everyone they knew in their lives to MIGHT have been running in the marathon or lived somewhere in Boston.
  • by ThePeices (635180) on Wednesday April 17, 2013 @04:32PM (#43477103)

    Where I live, we had this huge shallow mag 6.3 aftershock right next to the city. The cellular networks performed pretty well during the massive emergency call spike dealing with all of the dead and injured, even while dealing with the widescale infrastructure damage that had just occurred. Emergency calls were mostly available in the hours after the quake, and the two main carriers handled the load well all things considered.

    We found that SMS messaging was the best method for communicating with friends and family, as voice was under heavy use at the time and best left for emergency use. SMS was good enough really, as it does not require realtime delivery.

    The main telco also immediately set every payphone to allow free calling to any phone nationwide, cell or landline for weeks after, and started putting up free WiFi on the top of many payphones. ( The free WiFi is still there today )

    Overall, not a bad result from the technology. Good emergency planning can and did save lives.

  • In the case of emergency CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN and so on telcos can dump normal subs so that the emergency services can use the network and also disables any mobile phone based bombs.I woudl not be surprised if this was done in Boston.
  • To quote George Carlin, "We know it's a situation. Everything is a situation."

    .
  • I think we all get the basics of oversubscription in dense areas but one thing I never understood from news reports it seems people had active calls dropped on them. Why does that happen?

    I know next to nothing about cellular TE but my understanding has been once your call has been admitted whatever bandwidth/timeslot allocated stays that way. This is not like IP networks where every packet competes anew for limited resource.

    I can understand not being able to make a call but I don't understand dropped call

  • 1 STAY OFF THE PHONE

    2 Get Out of the area (find the nearest StarBucks /McDonalds/%other hotspot%)

    3 Check In however you want to (ARC runs a Safe and Sound type site btw)

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