Telecommunications as a Lifeline
In the Wake of the Hurricane Season
In the midst of all of the devastating news coming out of southeast Texas in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, there is some good news – the communications network seems to be generally working well.
A few years ago that might have seemed like an incredibly insensitive statement. Why would anyone care about the telecommunications network when people are being lost and homes are being destroyed? The reason it matters is that telecommunications – especially wireless communications – has become a critical lifeline for most of the population. The fact that the local wireless carriers in southeast Texas have managed to keep service up for most of their serving area is not only an amazing feat, but very likely one of the reasons that first responders are able to do their job so well.
After the September 11 attacks in New York, there were photographs of lines of people trying to get access to the few remaining pay phones in the area, as cell networks were completely overwhelmed. After Hurricane Katrina, thousands of cell sites were knocked out, leaving many people with no way to contact family members or emergency services. This time, while cell service hasn’t been perfect, it’s been much better. And not just voice, but data as well – something that no one would have suspected would be a priority a decade ago. Emergency services have actually had to ask people to stop asking for help on social media and instead use their phones to call 911. That is amazing progress.
If you are unfamiliar with the networks that the telecommunications networks have put into place, they are remarkably well designed to recover from failures. Almost all circuits through a telecomm network – be they voice or data – are protected with redundant links. That can make a network expensive, but when telecommunications is a lifeline, it’s critical. Cell sites and remote locations are all protected with backup diesel generators, so even if the power goes out you can still get through. Folks who have (or had) traditional land lines know that when the power goes out, the phone still works. Even the newer fiber to the home systems have built in battery backup so that this lifeline requirement is still met. Your phone connection is probably the most reliable utility you have in your home.
Increasingly, telecommunications networks are getting even more resilient and smarter. Whereas in the past, a failure in one area would mean a switch to a dedicated secondary path, now intelligent restoration can make sure that the greatest percentage of traffic gets through by routing around a more mesh-like set of interconnections. Advanced techniques can even compensate for entire sites being taken out of the network, building backup routes on the fly, a case that is very hard to recover from in traditional networks.
On the wireless side, carriers can now bring in portable cell sites and immediately recover or improve lost cell service. You may have seen these portable cell sites at large concerts, festivals, or sporting events. When everyone expects to have coverage all of the time – as a lifeline service, not just as a convenience – these types of innovations have risen to meet the challenge. All of that cell traffic has to eventually get onto a wired network that can support the new influx of demand, and so far the networks have responded well.
Those of us who have been in the industry for a while have many stories of telecommunications networks broken during disasters and the yeoman’s work that linemen, technicians, network planners, and others put in to make sure that coverage comes up as fast as possible. It is reassuring to see that the lessons learned from the past are being used in the present. We will only get better at this as time goes on and technology improves.
Which will let the first responders the victims of disasters like Hurricane Harvey focus on much more important issues than communications.