Editor's Note: This is the second of a 3-part series looking at two-way emergency radio for disaster preparedness. Click here to read part 2.
On the afternoon of Sunday, May 22, 2011, the residents of Joplin, Missouri, learned to distrust their cell phones. What convinced them were the hellish winds from a maximum-strength EF5 tornado that reached down from the heavens like a giant vacuum cleaner of death. It touched down just east of the Kansas state line and blazed a 22-mile path of death and destruction through the town — sucking, ripping and tearing the city’s structures into mangled toothpicks and violently ending the lives of 158 people.
The monster mile-wide twister caused catastrophic damage in the neighborhood of $2.2 billion. And it knocked out cell phone communications for days. When the storm passed, 1,300 people were missing. The Show Me State learned a tough lesson that day: Don’t rely on cell phones. While they’re a great modern convenience, they’re also the first to fail when high winds crush cell phone towers like pop cans.
It wasn’t the first time. New York City, the morning of September 11, 2001. Terrorists strike the World Trade Center. New Yorkers — and virtually everyone else in America — rush to their cell phones. They called to report smoke and fire. They called to request medical help. They called to check in on loved ones. And many just called because they needed to talk to someone, anyone who would listen, about the horrific scenes they saw on TV. It didn’t matter why they called, as much as the fact that everyone called at the same time. The phone system locked up. There was too much data flooding the network and not enough bandwidth. While some infrastructure damage could be blamed for the failure — several cell towers and connecting land lines were indeed destroyed — the real reason the networks failed was simply because they were overloaded.
“I walked from downtown to Lincoln Center (about 4.5 miles) before I was able to hail a cab with four strangers,” said Andrea Mancuso as reported by CBS News (Post 9/11: Can We Count on Cell Networks? September 7, 2011). Mancuso was working just north of the Trade Center. She was lucky; her phone worked. “Everyone was upset, and no one had a cell phone signal except me. I passed my phone around like a hot potato all the way to Harlem. Everyone including the cab driver graciously and tearfully called their families.”
Since that day, cell phone networks have been tested and retested and they routinely fail when consumption demands exceed normal levels. Industry representatives claim providers are installing additional towers and built-in network redundancy to handle the volume spike during crises. But Telecomm Analyst Gerard Hallaren paints a different picture. In the CBS News story he revealed that networks are only designed to handle 20 to 40 percent of traffic, which includes phone calls and data modes such as wireless Internet and text messaging.
In the end, it may be business realities — as opposed to technical or infrastructure limitations — keeping cell networks lean and mean, susceptible to failure during extraordinary events. “It's just economic insanity for any carrier to try to solve the congestion problem,” Hallaren said. “It's cost-prohibitive to build a network that could serve 330 million at the same time. A service like that would cost hundreds of dollars a month, and people are not willing to pay that much for cell phone service.”