As Hurricane Irene gears up to whip along the Eastern Seaboard this weekend, people are already planning evacuation strategies and making other preparations. A huge component of this is communicating with friends and family, but what happens when cellular networks go down? Can phone carriers handle a natural disaster?
Earlier this week, phone carriers experienced problems with connectivity after the magnitude 5.8 earthquake struck outside Richmond, Va. People took to Facebook and Twitter to not only report the news but also that their landlines and cellphones were not working.
Phone carriers encouraged customers to send texts instead of placing calls until network traffic returned to normal, which occurred a few hours later.
While phone carriers have emergency plans to deal with natural disasters, “nature is always going to be better and stronger than those efforts,” Michael Morgan, senior analyst at ABI Research, told TechNewsDaily.
“There are moves that can be made to support cell networks that are taken down by natural disasters such as hurricanes, but it depends on how big the disaster region is and how badly it’s hit.”
Morgan noted that cellular-on-wheels trucks (COWs) — mobile cell sites featuring a cellular antenna tower and electronic radio receiver equipment attached to a vehicle — can be driven into towns to provide more network power to nearby areas hit by natural disasters.
This is already done on a small-scale today when cell networks take a hit after storms. COWs are also used during big events such as concerts that demand more network capacity than usual for people to place calls.
“COWs can be used to get cell networks up and running if they are taken down, but if a disaster washed out the whole Eastern Seaboard, they would need to be deployed in key regions such as Washington, D.C., for central command reasons so emergency calls could still be made.”
Morgan also noted that phone traffic can also be rerouted by carriers to different data centers to ease some of the traffic burden.
“When cellphone traffic goes up — which it does every time there is a disaster — it’s hard to hold that capacity, so it becomes a balance game for the carriers to figure out how to reroute traffic and help the networks get back to normal.”
[Read also “ What is Fueling Hurricane Irene’s Fury? ”]
But what if cellphone networks don't come back online fast enough or they don’t come back at all after a natural disaster?
This happened in Louisiana in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina made landfall. “People could not communicate,” said Robert Barham, a Louisiana state senator and chairman of the state Senate’s homeland security committee at the time. “It got to the point that people were literally writing messages on paper, putting them in bottles and dropping them from helicopters to other people on the ground.”
If such a scenario were to repeat, people could still communicate using the Bluetooth short-range radio technology included in most modern smartphones, says Thomas Wilheim, a computer scientist and security expert.
Speaking at the DefCon hacker conference in Las Vegas in early August, Wilheim proposed the creation of a smartphone app, called Auto-BAHN, which could allow people to send and receive messages even if cellphone towers and the Internet are offline.
Auto-BAHN could enable people to stay in touch with loved ones and to receive crucial information from government and emergency services, Wilheim said.
"This should not be difficult to implement," he said. "It's so simplistic that it should already have been discussed and online."
As Wilheim envisions it, Auto-BAHN would include a chat room-like feature where messages could be publicly posted and propagated to other Auto-BAHN-enabled smartphones.
"The idea is that data dissemination goes to each of these nodes" — in this case a smartphone running Auto-BAHN — "and each node itself becomes a relay," Wilheim said.
"All messages get sent out to all cellphones, so you'll have the emergency information in there as well as detailed information from your mom. It's just a matter of picking and choosing which ones you want to see."
Wilheim noted that the same type of service could be set up using laptops, but he thinks smartphones are a better choice.
Smartphones "are ubiquitous and intelligent enough from a computational perspective that we have a device that can set up infrastructures that are ad hoc," Wilheim said.
Ideally, Auto-BAHN should be simple to navigate and use, and it should be pre-installed on smartphones regardless of what operating system they are running.
"We need to persuade [OS] manufacturers to include this type of app into all of their distributions," Wilheim said.
“I don't care if it's iPhone or BlackBerry. They should all be able to talk to each other."