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Questions About the Robustness of Mobile Networks

With mobile phones having become a utility, people are beginning to rely completely on mobile services for a large range of communications. All mobile users, however, are aware of some level of unreliability in these phone systems. Blackspots remain all around the country, not just outside the cities, and in busy areas the quality of the service goes down rather quickly. Drop-outs are another fairly common occurrence of mobile services.

In most cases these are annoyances that we have started to take for granted. This is rather odd, as people do not have the same level of tolerance in relation to their supply of landline communication or, for example, electricity.

At the same time, in almost ever disaster situation the mobile network collapses, simply because it can’t handle the enormous increase in traffic. The latest example was the collapse of the mobile services in Boston shortly after the bombing.

The trouble is that in such events this is not simply an annoyance. At these times communications are critical, and sometimes a matter of life and death. The fact that we now have many examples of network meltdowns indicates that so far mobile operators have been unable to create the level of robustness needed to cope with catastrophic events.

Then there are the natural disasters, when it is more likely that infrastructure will be extensively damaged or totally destroyed. However, as we saw during the Brisbane floods two years ago, essential infrastructure has been built in areas that are known to be flood-prone. Infrastructure like mobile towers may not necessarily be physically affected but if the electricity substations are positioned in those areas mobile service operation will be affected.

There are also very few official emergency arrangements between electricity utilities and mobile operators, or for that matter local authorities.

Bucketty in the Hunter Valley, where my office is based, is in a bushfire-prone area and we have been working with Optus—the local, and only, provider of mobile services in the area—to prepare ourselves for bushfire emergencies, to date with limited result. Our idea was to work with the local fire brigade to get access to the mobile tower in emergency situations so that we could install a mobile back-up generator in case the power is cut off.

We were unable to get that organised as Optus insists it can provide these extra emergency services itself. Based on our experience, however, roads are closed in times of emergency and it would be impossible for anyone from the outside to come into the area to assist. This has to be organised on a local level, but large organisations don’t work that way.

All of these examples show that the utility and emergency functions of mobile services have not yet been taken seriously enough, and so these problems will continue unless a more critical approach is taken towards guaranteeing a much higher level of robustness to our mobile services. The mobile communication meltdowns during disasters that we have witnessed over the last few years were largely preventable if mobile operators had prepared their network for such events, and if better emergency plans had been developed between various authorities involved in such emergencies, together with policies and procedures to address these issues.

With an increased coverage of WiFi—linked to fixed networks—we see that, particularly in cities, such services are proving to be more reliable, especially for the data services that are required almost immediately to locate people and provide emergency communication services. The social media play a key role in this. In Boston Google responded instantly with a location finder for those affected and their friends and family, and access was largely provided through hotspots.

With an increase of total reliance on mobile networks, especially in emergency situations, it is obvious that far greater attention will need to be given to the construction of mobile networks with disaster events in mind. So far the industry on its own has failed to do this and it will be only a matter of time for government authorities to step in and try to fix these problems.

Other problems—based in particular on experience in the USA—that will need to be addressed include the unfamiliarity with SMS, especially among older people. During a network meltdown it often is still possible to send SMSs and they are the best method of communication. Also, with the increase of smartphones people tend to no longer remember telephone numbers, and often in those emergency situations the batteries of smartphones quickly run to empty.

Smartphone manufacturers, as well as the society at large, will have to think of solutions to these problems.

This is a good interview with my American colleague Brough Turner on why cell phone (and other phone) networks get congested in time of crisis.

By Paul Budde, Managing Director of Paul Budde Communication

Paul is also a contributor of the Paul Budde Communication blog located here.

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