"Can You Hear Me Now?" Cell-Phone Faulire in National Emergencies

The reason I bought a damn cell phone was for just the sort of situation we had last week: and mine, like everyone else’s in NY, was about as useful as a See-n-Say phone. I saw one woman rooted to her spot because “I’m getting reception here, and I’m not moving.”

I saw some local news anchors this weekend taking cell-phone execs to task: a Verizon guy was really grilled on the local NBC station. “My cell phone was working, Sue.” “Well, yours was the only one that was, then.”

I understand about overworked circuits and such—but cell phones are our lifelines in emergencies: is there indeed any way the companies can resolve this problem?

Well AT&T never works anytime, so it wasn’t a big deal for me. :smiley:

Probably not, in the short term. It’s a bandwith problem. When you turn on your cell phone to make a call, your phone sends a signal to the nearest antenna that the company has put up (the “cell”). Your phone then searches for a frequency not in use, and reserves it for its own use, allowing your phone to communicate with the tower without interference. However, if all the frequencies reserved to the cell phone company are in use, your phone can’t find a frequency to reserve.

So, the only two solutions are to either give more bandwith to cellular licenses, which is difficult because there’s only so much spectrum to go around, or to decrease the amount of bandwith that each cellphone needs to reserve, and they’ve been working on that.

Another solution is to make the cells smaller so that there are less people in the cells.

In defense of the cell network, how do you think cell sites work? ON POWER FROM THE CITY. Our network in Canada was partially down, we have battery back ups but it doesn’t help when 5 million people start using cell phones in a panic. I know it’s human nature to want to get in touch with your loved ones but please, try to use some sense folks!

If too many people jump on the lines the network can and has (9/11 anyone?) been brought down due to super-heavy usage. Our network operations people sent out our posistion statement that we’re more concerned about our network stability and emergency communications (for the city and police networks) than calls wondering if your kids at home are safe.

Sorry to sound really pee’d but we’re getting the back lash at work with people calling in pissed that their cells didn’t work…well duh.

And what gets me is that the land lines weren’t down, if it was so important to make a call find a payphone (but many of the newer payphones were also down because they need power, how ironic).

Oh, and eve, not to pick on you or anything but cell phones are not emergency communication devices. In the event of an emergency cell towers, like anything else, can go down from anything to power failures to physical destruction. If emergency communications was very important to you get a long range (licensed) CB radio.

Regular walkie talkie type radios only have a 2 mile range, you can pick up a real radio (several miles + range but may have to be mounted away from you (i.e. car) due to FCC safety regs). I saw one on our site that had a 6 mile range but you need to pay for licensing (I dunno how much that is) and I wouldn’t want it running next to my tender body.

Cell phones should never be relied upon as “emergency” devices. Cell phone networks are hardly perfect in the best of times.

Even the land-line system can bog down or fail in the face of a huge wave of phone traffic.

I remember a minor (but very noisy and noticeable) earthquake we had here in Cleveland back in the 80s. A Californian would have shrugged it off, but we Clevelanders had mostly never experienced such a strong earthquake before (or since). We had to take the phone off the hook for a minute or two to get a dialtone - everyone in town had picked up the phone to check on their family and friends.

If you design a system to handle the average traffic flow, it will fail when there’s a huge surge, and if you design the system to handle the huge surge, much of it will sit idle 99% of the time - and waste quite a lot of money.

Well, badmana, you simply confirmed my suspicion that cell phones are indeed a useless, poorly designed and thought-out, overhyped piece of garbage, and that I’ve been a sap for giving a cent of my money to Verizon for something not designed to do what its ads sold it to do.

Yep, you were taken in by them ads, sorry to say.

I sometimes get to watch the US commericals and the verizon ones are the worst. I hate it because generally cell phones do not work in say, an elevator (it’s a huge metal box, radio waves generally have trouble getting through) or when the guy is walking in the woods (cell phones generally cannot work in national parks (for instances) because the government will not allow us to build towers on it’s land).

Cell phones are only a convience tool. It is so over-hyped it’s just wrong.

Which verizon commerical recommends cell phones in emergency situations? You could probably sue.

The ads said you would be able to make calls when power the north east goes down? I must have missed that ad.

You bought the phone for the wrong reason. You are asking the phone companies to have a system in place which would go mostly unused (traffic capacity, redundancy, emergency power generation etc). Who’s going to pay for that? You think every customer is willing to pay triple just so they can dial in that once-every-twenty-year event? I don’t think so.

Which still have limitations.

At best! And usually less in an urban area

My husband is the ham radio expert, not me, but antenna size is often more of a factor than radio size. We’ve achieved a 40 mile transmission with a hand-held UNlicensed CB by way of an antenna mounted on the roof, the top 65 feet high. Of course, this is not a convenient set up for carrying about one’s person. In the car or truck we use a roof-mounted antenna for a 5-10 mile range.

There are a number of radio types, with different varieties of licensing available. The cost for our GMRS radios (if I recall) was $20 for a 10 year license (I think - as I said, I’m not the expert) And there are rigs out there costing thousands of dollars and hours of time to get the license.

Having been stranded in a hayfield far from home, when wandering I’ve taken carrying the following communication devices:

  1. Cellphone (it just might work)
  2. CB radio (good if you’re near a highway)
  3. Change for pay phone
  4. Aviation transceiver (well, I got lost in the hayfield after an emergency landing, you see…) For non-pilots, substitute a battery operated radio, or even a handcrank variety.

For the car, I carry those adapters for plugging into the cigarette lighters - useful for phones or radios.

Consider where you will be most of the time. If you’re walking about the center of a big city, knowing where there are payphones and having the means to call on one (change, charge card, whatever) is worth more than a cellphone that doesn’t work. If you’re at home a battery/handcrank receiver might be a good choice because there might be some emergency information being broadcast. CB’s can be a source of information if you’re on the road. If you’re going to be traveling by car, having adapters for charging things is a good investment (our CB once helped us avoid a toxic chemical spill and the associated traffic jam on the interstate - worth every penny in that case)

I’m not a big fan of one-size-fits-all contingency planning - consider where you go, what you do, and your environment.

For working downtown my first aid kit contains bandaids and moleskin. Why? Because if I have to walk out of the the Chicago Loop I’m going to have beat up feet. Likewise, I keep a pair of “sensible shoes” under my desk for the same reason. But I don’t take the aviation handheld with me because in that environment it’s most likely dead weight - better I grab a bottle of water for my bag. See how this works?

Not that a cellphone is completely useless - in mundane situations like a flat tire at night they are a godsend. But in a massive disturbance like 9/11 or the Blackout of '03 your regular safety net might develop new holes. Have a backup to your backup, and be flexible.

I used to work for Motorola specifically testing cellular networks for Verizon Wireless and Sprint PCS. I think Verizon uses Lucent in NYC, so I can’t speak with 100% confidence on them.

However, most base stations (the actuall equipment at the bottom of most cell towers) have a battery back up or, in some cases, an emergency generator. Motorola recently had base stations still operational after the major earthquake in Japan and while standing in 2 and 1/2 feet of water after the flooding down in Mexico. These are set to handle local disruptions.

However, these base stations are connected to some kind of centralized controller. The centralized controllers are the real brains behind the whole network. They usually control dozens of base stations and are rather distant from the base stations they control, most likely in a nice comfy building, but without the back up power. (these things suck juice like crazy and are very warm to work near)

Most companies plan for power outages. Most adjacent base stations are connected to different controllers. That way if the power to one centralized controller is lost and all of its sites go down, the adjacent sites are still operational and there is still quite a bit of coverage.

However, when the entire electrical grid goes down, all of the centralized controllers go down. The individual base stations might be up because of their batteries and/or generators, and you might even see a signal on your phone, but most likely, you won’t actually get connected.

Sorry if that was too much detail.