Can You Hear Me When It Counts?

To John Graves, wireless communications is a lot more than Verizon Wireless’ catchy “Can You Hear Me Now?” tag line. It’s about emergency responders hearing one another when it counts.

Graves, program director for the Government Emergency Telecommunications Service, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, is one of the people trying to answer a key question revolving around wireless networks: Why are cellular networks among the first to fail during an emergency?

“In emergencies, it’s not just emergency workers using wireless, it’s everybody,” said Graves in Arlington, Va. “Everybody wants to call home. People pick up the phone and make a lot of telephone calls. This causes the phone network, including wireless, to get congested.”

According to Graves, the telephone network is built to have a call success rate of 99 percent on the busiest hour of the busiest day of the year. The problem: During national emergencies—think Hurricane Katrina and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks—that success rate can drop as low as 10 percent.

When wireless companies suffer outages due to equipment damage and lost connections to the public service telephone network, PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network) calls are routed to functioning networks, overloading them.

The challenge is closing that gap. The issue is on the front burner of everyone from the industry association CTIA, which had its Wireless IT & Entertainment conference in Los Angeles Sept. 12-14, to wireless carriers and first responders. The race is on to prepare for the next big emergency, and it’s not clear wireless companies can get it together due to interoperability, allegiance to serving customers and lack of communication among key players. As things stand today, there is no coordination among the companies preparing for the Next Big One. The bottom line: The industry may not be ready for the next emergency, whether it be a massive weather event, an earthquake, a terrorist attack or a pandemic.

In the meantime, each provider—ranging from Cingular Wireless to Sprint Nextel to Verizon Wireless to T-Mobile USA—is attacking the issue differently. Some are working to make sure that their networks can survive, others are making sure that they can coordinate the rebuilding process, and a few are focusing on the needs of first responders. “Always have a Plan B,” said Josh Lonn, regional director of development for the South region at T-Mobile in Frisco, Texas. “We have to spread our risk as much as we can.”

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