More than a few people in the public safety and homeland security sectors are hoping yesterday afternoon’s shallow M5.8 earthquake shook some sense into politicians, bureaucrats and Congressional staffers. The temblor, the largest recorded in the national capitol region in more than a century, caused a large-scale disruption of cellular telephone service when it struck shortly before 2:00 PM EDT. Cellular operators attributed the failure to overloads rather than physical damage to system components. Landline services, including the copper-wire-based public switched telephone network, remained operational and under-utilized.
The growing dependence of Americans on cellular telephone services, especially the extent to which reliance on these devices has displaced older technologies, has raised concerns among regulators and the regulated alike. Phone companies are now having trouble keeping up with the increasing capabilities of the devices we crave. Despite our seemingly elastic appetites for each new generation of wireless technology, our willingness to pay for the infrastructure to support these nifty services has remained relatively constrained. Meanwhile, pressure on companies to improve profitability in an atmosphere of constrained revenues and stiff competition have limited infrastructure spending to such an extent that one wonders whether the price and performance curves will ever be reconciled, even if the economic recovery takes hold.
This harsh reality has fueled pressure from the public safety industry on regulators and legislators to designate and release a large chunk of radio-frequency spectrum known as D-Block for development of a national broadband public safety network. It didn’t take long for advocates of this move to capitalize on the quake to underscore their concerns about the status quo and renew calls for immediate action on the D-Block petition.
You might wonder why overloaded cellular networks are much of a concern to public safety agencies. After all, don’t they have their own radio frequencies already anyway? We’ve invested lots of federal, state, local and tribal government money in the decade since 9/11 improving interoperable communications capabilities. Hasn’t this paid off somehow?
Well, Virginia, thanks for asking. Yes, public safety does have a lot of spectrum and some pretty fancy equipment. This equipment and the slices of spectrum already allocated do a pretty good job of relaying voice communications and a small amount of data. But because of the limitations of these proprietary technologies and the institutional inertia of the agencies who own and operate it, police, fire-rescue and EMS services rely pretty heavily on the same cellular services the rest of us do for high-speed, broadband data applications and services. And like the rest of us, they often use cellular telephones when they only need to relay a message to a single person. That means when we lose cellular service they do too.
But wait a minute, don’t public safety officials have priority access to cellular telephone services? Clever girl, Virginia. Yes, they do. But that doesn’t help much when the number of priority calls alone are sufficient to swamp the system. Imagine, if you will, how many people in Washington, D.C. and along the eastern seaboard consider their need to communicate with someone right this second more important than anyone else’s. Besides not every public safety agency has configured its equipment and paid the fees necessary to obtain this sort of priority access.
Cellular network operators say most services returned to normal within about 20 minutes of the earthquake. One suspects that the decision to release many (so-called) non-essential government workers early was predicated at least in part on a desire to alleviate further strain on the region’s already overburdened systems and services. At the same time, one has to wonder what this cost both in terms of lost productivity and public image.
By most accounts, the earthquake, despite its surprising intensity and duration, caused relatively little physical damage. But the fiscal damage of the decisions yet to come remains to be seen.