Small quake is big enough
Now the West Coast folks are teasing us East Coast folks about our response to the biggest eastern earthquake since World War II. Yes, we know it wasn't as big as some of the ones they get out west. However, it was big enough to illustrate the problems that occur when one relies on public networks in an emergency, as well as the need for a public-safety broadband infrastructure.
At the time of the earthquake, I was in Happy Valley, home of JoePa (aka Penn State University Football Coach Joe Paterno), with my daughter (aka the Very Happy College Freshman) eating in the school's cafeteria. Having experienced an earthquake before, I immediately knew what was happening. However, the kids in the cafeteria had no idea. After all of the buildings were evacuated, you can imagine what they did. They immediately jumped on their cell phones (heck, so did I) and found the network jammed.
While the carriers recommend that folks use data instead of voice during such high-demand periods, the reality was that in this case the data networks were jammed, too. I couldn't get text messages through, although I eventually was able to get onto the Internet via my tablet. That was fine for finding news reports, but quite frankly information came out faster on Facebook than it did through news outlets.
This is not to suggest that the commercial networks didn't hold up in the aftermath of the quake. In fact, I had full bars on my phone the entire time. Rather, the networks were just jammed with every kid calling home or calling their friends (or trying to).
At one point, some students were standing outside of their dorm, with no direction or knowledge of when (or whether) they could go back inside; indeed, they were getting no information whatsoever. I was disappointed that the school didn't have a network for emergency information, much like the one established at Virginia Tech after the tragedy there. Perhaps the school did have one, but if so, none of these students seemed to be aware of it.
Regarding public-safety communications — which never should rely on commercial infrastructure during an emergency — one of the core features of the proposed nationwide broadband network is its ability to handle extremely large files. In the aftermath of the earthquake, it would have been wonderful for firefighters to stand outside of a potentially dangerous building and see inside, and obtain schematics and floor plans that would guide them in their response. However, that functionality wasn't on display either, because the network that would make it possible doesn't exist.
As I write this in late August, we're now at the point where a
D Block bill by Sept. 11, is highly unlikely. That's a shame, because our nation's lawmakers lost the opportunity to announce a signature "feel good" program directly tied to the 9/11 attacks. That doesn't mean that the D Block reallocation and construction funding won't happen. However, it does mean that the lack of a significant date pushing the issue could mean that this effort will again be delayed.
The good news is that even as a bill falters, work on operational standards continues by a very significant number of people. In addition, waiver-grant municipalities continue their efforts to get the network constructed with the limited funding and bandwidth that presently is available. While this will fall short of a nationwide build-out and a robust network, some local functionality can be achieved.
We survived Aug. 23, 2011, very nicely on the East Coast. Some cracks in the Washington Monument and Washington Cathedral are being reviewed, but not much else. How long can we remain so lucky?
What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.
Alan Tilles is counsel to numerous entities in the private radio and Internet industries. He is a partner in the law firm of Shulman Rogers Gandal Pordy & Ecker and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.