Almost immediately after Monday's tragic bombings at the Boston Marathon, the city's cellular networks collapsed. The Associated Press initially reported what many of us suspected, that law enforcement officials had requested a communications blackout to prevent the remote detonation of additional explosives. But the claim was soon redacted as the truth became clear. It didn't take government fiat to shut down the cellular networks. They fell apart all on their own.
As cell service sputtered under a surge of calls, runners were left in the dark, families couldn’t reach loved ones, and even investigators were stymied in making calls related to their pursuit of suspects. Admirably, Boston residents and businesses responded quickly by opening up Wi-Fi hotspots to help evacuees communicate with loved ones.
But most, even the super-connected elite, were knocked offline. As his Twitter followers know, it took Dennis Crowley, a Massachusetts native and CEO of New York City-based social network Foursquare, an hour to reunite with his fiancé and family, who were scattered around the finish line as the bombs went off. Their reunion was coordinated by a handful of SMS messages he was able to squeeze through the crippled network. He also reported helping several stunned senior citizens discover the value of their own phones' texting functions for the first time.
We shouldn't be surprised by the collapse of Boston's cellular networks. The same thing happens every time there is a crisis in a large city. On an average day, Americans make nearly 400,000 emergency 911 calls on their mobile phones. Yet during large-scale crises this vital lifeline is all-too-frequently cut off.
The culprit is usually congestion. During a disaster, call volumes spike and overwhelm the over-subscribed capacity of wireless carriers' networks. On September 11, 2001, fewer than 1 in 20 mobile phone calls in New York City was connected. The same thing happened after the August 2011 earthquake that shook the East Coast. And on Monday, in Boston.
But, as we learned in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, wireless carriers have also neglected to harden their networks against extended losses of electrical power. Thousands of towers were knocked offline in the New York region alone when backup batteries failed. Yet as a member of Governor Andrew Cuomo's NYS Ready Commission this fall, I was stunned to learn that wireless carriers had never formally discussed plans with the region's electric utilities to restore power to cell sites after a major disaster.
The loss of vital wireless communications during disasters is all the more dismaying because it is largely preventable. After 9/11 a system was put in place to give government officials priority access to cellular channels during periods of high demand. (Though it requires pre-registration and a special code be used when dialing). In the wake of Sandy, New York Senator Charles Schumer called for stricter federal oversight of backup power and landline network connections for cell sites. Yet these reforms have been stalled by industry lobbying. Lacking a redundant cellular system, Americans will continue to resort to the century-old technology of amateur radio for lifeline communications during and after large disasters. In Boston, this technology is still widely used during the marathon because of past experience with cellular traffic jams.
With over 320 million active wireless subscriber connections, Americans are a fully untethered people. Our smart phones keep our complicated lives choreographed across the sprawling metropolitan areas we inhabit. Psychologists and sociologists have found that we think of these devices as extensions of our bodies and minds. In Boston, this was all too apparent. Even when runners, whose mobile batteries were drained after the long run, could locate a phone, they couldn't recall what numbers to dial, having long ago given up memorizing phone numbers in favor of their smart phone's electronic address book.
Despite our utter dependency on cellular networks, the industry has failed to act substantially to improve the reliability of these systems. While it is one of the most vibrant sectors of the economy — AT&T Wireless, for instance, had its most profitable quarter ever in the months before Sandy — and invests tens of billions annually in network expansion, somehow the cost of greater reliability has not been deemed a priority. These companies have sold American consumers a digital lifeline without honoring their responsibility to assure it works at our time of greatest need.
Even if we do choose to engineer a better cellular grid, the more disturbing revelation of the Boston breakdown is the speed with which we've come to accept the shutdown of cellular networks as an acceptable exercise of law enforcement power. This is a tactic pioneered in Egypt by an autocratic government in its death throes to shut down mass protests. It should never be deployed in an information-based society that has become utterly dependent on wireless communications for every aspect of its social, economic, and political functioning.
Seeing our cellular networks as the launch pad for the next wave of terror attacks is self-defeating. Mobile phones do make effective remote controls for detonation, but so do landlines. Telecommunications networks have been used to plan and trigger attacks as long as we've pulled telegraph and telephone wires through our cities. (In 1972, the Mossad assassinated the PLO's kingpin in France using a remotely detonated desktop phone bomb.) But we never shut down the phone system to stop a single call. Besides, it was too hard to do quickly. Ironically, the same technological advances that have made mass cellular communications possible now allow us to throw a single kill switch for an entire network. We can now self-inflict additional damage by a panicked decision to neuter our own capacity to respond. No one denies the need for law enforcement to have the tools it needs to stop an attack. But there are more precise ways to do that.
The time to stop treating our cellular networks as an afterthought in preparedness, as expendable casualties during crises, is long overdue. In fact, they are the key to getting first responders to where they need to be, and an essential tool for resilient responses by citizens in the hours and days after a major disaster. The cellular industry has enjoyed the benefits (and profits) of access to public radio spectrum. With that access now comes enormous responsibility. We can't afford a communications infrastructure that works only when we don't really need it.
Top image: A woman tries to make a cell phone call after two explosions interrupted the running of Monday's Boston Marathon. (Reuters)