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Why It's So Hard To Make a Phone Call In Emergency Situations

Soulskill posted about a year and a half ago | from the everybody-has-the-same-idea-at-the-same-time dept.

Wireless Networking 179

antdude writes "BoingBoing reports on why it's 'so hard to make a phone call in emergency situations.' Quoting: '[The thing about] the radios is that they have different sizes of cells. You've got regular cells and then smaller sub-cells. You also have larger overlay macro-cells that are really big. They try to handle you within the small cell you're closest to. But it's a trade off between capacity — they'd like to have lots of small cells for that — and coverage — they don't want to put 100k small cells everywhere. So you might have a cell that covers a mile ara and then smaller cells within that that handle most of the traffic. ... In the end, it does come down to trade-offs. That's true of any network. You're interested in coverage first and then capacity. If you wanted to guarantee that a network never had an outage your capital investment would have to go up orders of magnitude beyond anything that is rational. So each network is trying to invest their budget in ways that make network appear to perform better. The cost of providing temporary extra capacity for the Boston Marathon, that's something that's in the budget and they plan for that event. But when you get something unexpected like a terrorist event, or an earthquake, or damage from a hurricane or tornado, then you have trade offs between capital and how robust your network is. Every time you have an event people say, "Oh, they didn't invest enough." But you look at New York City after Hurricane Sandy and Southern Manhattan was under 6 feet of water — all the buried infrastructure was lost.'"

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Summary? (5, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43475335)

I realize that TFS is a copy & paste job, but WTF? Whomever was quoted shouldn't be allowed to use a phone ever just because they can't speak coherently.

Re:Summary? (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43475497)

I had trouble making a phone call 'cause my hands were gone...

Re:Summary? (5, Funny)

Doug Otto (2821601) | about a year and a half ago | (#43475581)

Yet you type remarkably well. Please pull your pants up.

Re:Summary? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43476627)

I got better.

Re:Summary? (1)

MugenEJ8 (1788490) | about a year and a half ago | (#43477043)

Yet you type remarkably well. Please pull your pants up.

Grrrrr no mod points!

Re:Summary? (1)

TheRealMindChild (743925) | about a year and a half ago | (#43475645)

Does that mean I can't use my shoes because I am constantly tripping?

Re:Summary? (1)

darkshot117 (1288328) | about a year and a half ago | (#43476577)

Agreed, absolutely terrible summary, no context whatsoever. It's almost like they just copied and pasted a random paragraph from the article without even checking to see that it makes sense by itself. (which it doesn't)

Re:Summary? (2)

you-youtube (2900145) | about a year and a half ago | (#43476661)

I realize that TFS is a copy & paste job, but WTF? Whomever was quoted shouldn't be allowed to use a phone ever just because they can't speak coherently.

Finally, several other countries have implemented all sorts of special procedures for cell phone networks in emergencies (The UK, Israel, Lebanon, and Egypt all come to mind). These sometimes include shutting down cell services once a bombing occurs, but in some of these cases also include using the local version of E-911 as a priority search mechanism for people possibly trapped in rubble after a building bomb or an earthquake, and various other services that mean the system as a whole needs to stay up and function resilently under increased loads. "Common sense" would suggest that the US should have some of these protocols in place too, especially since we have spent literally 10,000.00 % of what some of these other countries have.

pay phones (3, Insightful)

schneidafunk (795759) | about a year and a half ago | (#43475343)

Pay phones will still work in emergencies. I recall that being a reason for their continued existence in the era of mobile phones.

Re:pay phones (3, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43475463)

The POTS (plain old telephone system, for the young whippersnappers) didn't have unlimited capacity to connect calls either. When many calls were in progress in an area, you could pick up the phone and hear the congestion tone right away. Conversely, if you tried to call an area where many calls were in progress, you'd hear the congestion tone before you'd finished dialing. Only with the internet has it become possible that everyone can talk to someone from a different area at the same time, and only if the ISP hasn't oversubscribed the network bandwidth too badly.

Re:pay phones (0)

bickerdyke (670000) | about a year and a half ago | (#43475889)

But the number of connected landlines in an area stays the same, even during big sports events or other mass gatherings of people. No one carries their landline phone when they visit the superbowl....

Re:pay phones (5, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43475993)

Very much beside the point. Only a relatively small percentage of connected landlines can call out of area at the same time. If there is a reason for many people in an area to call or be called at the same time, POTS users experience congestion just like mobile phone users do.

Re:pay phones (1)

rtfa-troll (1340807) | about a year and a half ago | (#43476659)

Very much beside the point. Only a relatively small percentage of connected landlines can call out of area at the same time. If there is a reason for many people in an area to call or be called at the same time, POTS users experience congestion just like mobile phone users do.

Please mod posts like this up. It's pretty insightful. What you say is mostly true. However, the fact is that the ability of mobile users to all gather in one area does make things seem worse than they would be with fixed lines. With the fixed line, when everyone suddenly wants to call, you end up with queues to get access to the phone (you wait whilst your each of your sisters in turn hog the line for 1/2 an hour). With the mobile network they do it differently and have a bunch of phones queuing. Whilst more phone calls go through the mobile network for the same investment, you also get more fast busy tones. From the point of view of user perception (where user's understand a line of people they can see, but don't understand that their particular group of phones is suspended for a short while) there is a difference.

Re:pay phones (1)

Lumpy (12016) | about a year and a half ago | (#43476091)

500 landlines do NOT have 500 outbound connections. there are about 125 outbound connections. Therefore it is very easy to overwhelm the system.

Why is it this way? Because phone companies are cheap bastards that are in it for money and not reliability.

Re:pay phones (2)

Cramer (69040) | about a year and a half ago | (#43476247)

No they do it because it's not necessary. (also "not possible") One cannot build out the PSTN such that every phone can be in use at the same time. The switch itself cannot handle 100% usage, even if it had the trunk capacity for all the lines. Telcos build their infrastructure to meet statistical average and peak usages. Cellular operators can (and do) bring in additional capacity for planned events -- emergencies are far from predictable.

E911 is in the same boat. While there are dedicated trunks to the call center, they do not have infinite capacity. There's finite number of operators to take the calls anyway.

Re:pay phones (2)

afidel (530433) | about a year and a half ago | (#43476501)

Actually since we changed to packet switched networks it's 100% possible to have 100% activity, in fact today it would be trivial since voice takes so little bandwidth compared to modern networks. To give you an idea 150M people talking to 150M other people would only be 9.6Gbps which can be accommodated by a single peering link today.

Re:pay phones (1)

Cramer (69040) | about a year and a half ago | (#43477029)

If everyone were using a digital (VoIP) phone, sure. However, the PSTN is 99% ANALOG. A 5ESS or DMS100 cannot service thousands of lines (i.e. "all of them") all at once.

Cellphones are digital, however, there are notable RF limitations to having hundreds or thousands of radios active in the same small area. It works well for SMS because the phone only needs a brief period of clear air to push it's short message -- and the tower is queuing them up and streaming them in the same manner.

Re:pay phones (4, Informative)

Obfuscant (592200) | about a year and a half ago | (#43476277)

The POTS (plain old telephone system, for the young whippersnappers) didn't have unlimited capacity to connect calls either. When many calls were in progress in an area, you could pick up the phone and hear the congestion tone right away.

That's in the days of computer phone switches. In the old days of mechanical relays, there were a fixed, limited number of dialtone generators (and first selectors -- the stepper that handled the first digit you dialed), so if local capacity was reached you just didn't get a dialtone right away.

You still hear this today, but usually after you dial. It's the fast busy signal. The fast busy means circuits are busy, try again. The slow busy means the destination line is busy. If you try a fast busy again right away, chances are good you'll get through, and you'll confuse the person who answers if you accuse them of being on the line when you called a minute ago.

Mother's Day was a big holiday for calling, so it was more likely to hear, or not hear, this happening then.

Re:pay phones (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43475521)

copper hard line is what it takes to always get service

Re:pay phones (1)

Xipher (868293) | about a year and a half ago | (#43475707)

Sure, until the circuits are all tied up, or the lines get cut by a backhoe. Even land lines have limited capacity to emergency services dispatch centers.

Re:pay phones (1)

alen (225700) | about a year and a half ago | (#43475893)

same network capacity issues
and you have to wait in line to use it

Re:pay phones (2)

Doug Otto (2821601) | about a year and a half ago | (#43475913)

Ever try to find a pay phone these days?

Re:pay phones (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43476633)

What's a pay phone?

Most of them are in prisons, where they are not allowed cell phones.

Paragraphs (0)

Anon, Not Coward D (2797805) | about a year and a half ago | (#43475349)

More than one please

Re:Paragraphs (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43475381)

He exposed the government's plot in his next book Science of Survival.

uh, this is common sense (4, Insightful)

KernelMuncher (989766) | about a year and a half ago | (#43475361)

Anytime you have a large population in a small area all wanting to make calls, the system will be overloaded. Capacity is built for normal use (which is probably 95 or 99% of normal call volume). When there are spikes in demand exceeding this volume, the network will not work as well (or even fail). Also if the network is physically damaged (such as Hurricane Sandy) it won't carry even normal call volumes. How is this not common sesne ?

Re:uh, this is common sense (1)

VeryBest52 (2897689) | about a year and a half ago | (#43475401)

I'm sure it is common sense, but it's also worth noting that there isn't a wireless shortage or anything. It's carriers not planning for abnormal usage volume. I've seen cell service (Verizon LTE data for instance) work just fine at large events with almost 100,000 people when the cellco plans properly.

Re:uh, this is common sense (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43475535)

Not when 100000 people all try to use the phone at the same time you haven't. The handsets can't modulate their transmit power precisely enough to make cells sufficiently small that each cell has only the number of subscribers in it that it can handle at the same time without interference from handsets in neighboring cells.

Re:uh, this is common sense (1)

JDevers (83155) | about a year and a half ago | (#43475559)

I've seen it handle far more than that and work fine. I help organize one of the largest motorcycle rallies in the country. From Wednesday through Saturday as many as 400,000 people pour into a small area that typically has only 10-20,000 people in it (not the whole town...just that section of town). Service used to completely bomb, but as the rally has grown consistently to its current size the providers have responded VERY well. The last two years I have had absolutely zero problems and I'm on site for nearly the whole rally. Vendors at the site used to nearly universally complain that by Friday they would have almost no connectivity on their cell credit card machines and were instead having to do imprints on hundreds or even thousands of cards a day. We complained and eventually were heard, the last two years there have been no reported problems at all.

That of course is a planned event and certainly most of the people aren't on their cells at once.

Re:uh, this is common sense (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43475649)

I've seen it handle far more than that and work fine. I help organize one of the largest motorcycle rallies in the country.

That of course is a planned event and certainly most of the people aren't on their cells at once.

And the Boston Marathon is a spontaneous Flash Mob?

Re:uh, this is common sense (1)

ColdWetDog (752185) | about a year and a half ago | (#43475849)

And the Boston Marathon is a spontaneous Flash Mob?

That is a very unfortunate choice of words there.

Re:uh, this is common sense (1)

alen (225700) | about a year and a half ago | (#43475923)

data use is different than everyone in a given area trying to call on the phone at the same time

Re:uh, this is common sense (1)

CanadianMacFan (1900244) | about a year and a half ago | (#43476195)

Well if you want the cell companies to be able to handle 100,000 people starting a phone conversation at once from any random place because of some random event then you better be prepared to pay a lot more for your service.

Re:uh, this is common sense (3, Informative)

afidel (530433) | about a year and a half ago | (#43476591)

Not really, for planned events you bring in a few cell on wheels carts per carrier and increase the cell density, this is done all the time for football games and other sporting and political events. Now I'm not sure what the average use rates are for those events, but I bet for something like the superbowl it's well over 50% (for many of the folks at the Superbowl it's more about being seen at the game then it is about the game itself).

Re:uh, this is common sense (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43477077)

Not really, for planned events you bring in a few cell on wheels carts per carrier and increase the cell density, this is done all the time for football games and other sporting and political events. Now I'm not sure what the average use rates are for those events, but I bet for something like the superbowl it's well over 50% (for many of the folks at the Superbowl it's more about being seen at the game then it is about the game itself).

Right well just create a federal office of disaster so all disasters can be pre-registered and the telcos can have necessary capacity in place to handle the spike in usage.

Planed events are completely irrelevant to the topic at hand.

Re:uh, this is common sense (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43476505)

they do plan for what they expect to happen plus they provide emergency calls handling with priority i.e. if you call 12 or emergency teams with phones registered as priority ones will get the bandwith if any exists.
And yes there are plenty of places where bottleneck can happen. What else is new?

Re:uh, this is common sense (3, Interesting)

rwa2 (4391) | about a year and a half ago | (#43475517)

Yep, pretty much have cell phone congestion during any large crowd event, such as parades and concerts and demonstrations.

All it would really take is some sort of public education campaign to use SMS in those situations.

911 does take SMS nowadays, does it not? If not, I hear SMS to Twitter / Facebook has been useful for getting people to reach out to their friends for help, who can in turn call an emergency response number... somewhere.

Re:uh, this is common sense (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43475627)

So if capacity approaches the limit, start killing and disallowing non emergency calls. I think everyone calling his mum to say all is fine can wait until after all emergencies are called in.

Re:uh, this is common sense (1)

Amouth (879122) | about a year and a half ago | (#43475727)

The cell towers/cells already do this. but even then, sometimes there isn't enough capacity to handle all the emergency calls that can originate from a small concentrated area.

Re:uh, this is common sense (1)

Artifakt (700173) | about a year and a half ago | (#43475803)

There's been a hell of a lot of money spent on homeland security since 2001. That same common sense you invoke is what leads most of us to expect some of those literal trillions went into raising emergency capacity above the normal use limits, and it's also common sense to think that a place such as Boston would be fairly high on the list of areas to shore up. (Especially since there were specific ties to Boston in the original event that inspired all that spending).
            Finally, several other countries have implemented all sorts of special procedures for cell phone networks in emergencies (The UK, Israel, Lebanon, and Egypt all come to mind). These sometimes include shutting down cell services once a bombing occurs, but in some of these cases also include using the local version of E-911 as a priority search mechanism for people possibly trapped in rubble after a building bomb or an earthquake, and various other services that mean the system as a whole needs to stay up and function resilently under increased loads. "Common sense" would suggest that the US should have some of these protocols in place too, especially since we have spent literally 10,000.00 % of what some of these other countries have.

Re:uh, this is common sense (2)

Lumpy (12016) | about a year and a half ago | (#43476133)

"There's been a hell of a lot of money utterly wasted with homeland security since 2001."

Fixed that for you.. you seemed to have made a very common mistake assuming that the money was spent well and not blown on completely useless things.

Re:uh, this is common sense (3, Insightful)

nine-times (778537) | about a year and a half ago | (#43475967)

I think everyone understands this, even if not on a technical level. Anything has an upper limit, beyond which is overloads.

I think the main question in my mind is, what our we comfortable with as a failure of our infrastructure? Maybe we say, "We're ok with the cell phone network going out during an emergency, since those emergencies will be rare and the cost of making the network robust and redundant enough to handle the additional volume isn't worth being able to use your cell phone in an emergency." But then are we really ok with that? If we have a bombing in a major city and people can't really report what's going on because our telecommunications can't handle the strain, is that really alright?

There may be other options, of course. Maybe we want to rethink the design of the cell network to see if we can come up with something than handles the load better and reroutes in case of congestion. Or maybe we just want to figure out a way to prioritize certain traffic so "Important" calls go through while the rest fail. Those things are both easier said than done, but they're other ways to approach the problem.

The problem I see with these kinds of problems is that everyone wants to have their cake and eat it too. They say, "Well why should we waste money building out the network to protect us from a problem that's unlikely to happen?" But unlikely things happen all the time, and when one of them causes a problem, they scream, "WHY DIDN'T WE SEE THIS COMING?" We did see this coming. We decided it wasn't cost-effective to protect ourselves. Pay more attention.

Re:uh, this is common sense (2)

DerekLyons (302214) | about a year and a half ago | (#43477087)

Maybe we want to rethink the design of the cell network to see if we can come up with something than handles the load better and reroutes in case of congestion.

You have a vast misunderstanding of how the world works... Congestion isn't caused by bad routing, it's caused by too much traffic in too small an area in too short a time for the available capacity to handle. You can't reroute into or out of a congested area - because there aren't any routes to be had.
 

Or maybe we just want to figure out a way to prioritize certain traffic so "Important" calls go through while the rest fail.

That's been a standard part of telephony for at least half a century.
 

But unlikely things happen all the time, and when one of them causes a problem, they scream, "WHY DIDN'T WE SEE THIS COMING?" We did see this coming. We decided it wasn't cost-effective to protect ourselves. Pay more attention.

Again, a vast misunderstanding of how the world works. Yes, taken as an average and across the whole country - unlikely events happen on a semi-regular basis. But for an individual location? They're still very unlikely.

Re:uh, this is common sense (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43475999)

Yes, this is a classic traffic dimensioning problem. You won't build a network capable of handling calls from all the users in the area at once.

The issue with dealing with emergencies, is that, contrary to mother's day, people would keep trying in a short time interval and probably cause more troubles than help. But I don't know how traffic is currently handled on wireless networks during those events.

Re:uh, this is common sense (1)

Darinbob (1142669) | about a year and a half ago | (#43476127)

And this stuff happened even before mobile phones. The switching systems get overloaded if most of the traffic goes to one place instead of being spread out.

Re:uh, this is common sense (2)

evilviper (135110) | about a year and a half ago | (#43476941)

Anytime you have a large population in a small area all wanting to make calls, the system will be overloaded.

That's not necessarily true. The lower the frequencies in-use, the further over the horizon your cell signal can go, and therefore be load-balanced by possibly numerous cell towers.

In a rural area, sure, there's probably only one other tower in range. But in an urban area like Boston, there's tons of cell towers around, which could absorb the sudden spike in demand from that "small area" if properly designed to do so.

Capacity is built for normal use (which is probably 95 or 99% of normal call volume). When there are spikes in demand exceeding this volume, the network will not work as well (or even fail).

If your network "fail[s]" because of traffic spikes, you're doing something horribly, horribly wrong! If that's your "common sesne", I guess common sesne is often wrong...

Besides, acting like cell towers are old telco switched circuits isn't remotely accurate, and doesn't make any sense. A phone call may only need 8Kbps of bandwidth, while with LTE, several customers (at the same time) expect to be able to download at ~50Mbps... That means for each LTE (data) customer you expect each tower to handle, you could alternately handle 6000 voice calls instead (eg. in an emergency, like this one)...

Also if the network is physically damaged (such as Hurricane Sandy) it won't carry even normal call volumes. How is this not common sesne ?

Depends on what you mean by "damaged". For power, on-site generators are fairly inexpensive, and fully automated. Fiber optics are sufficiently water-resistant, so flooding shouldn't knock them out. Stringing lines above ground has been known to be problematic for centuries, so I'd hope the important backhaul is buried, and not affected by storms. And even in the "backhoe" case, these are major telcos, and should be smart enough to have redundant links taking different physical paths.

So if you're talking about those, it's not unreasonable to expect telcos to do a better job, and avoid such "physical damage" in the future. If, however, you mean the cell towers actually being knocked out by winds and flying debris, then I'll concede the point, that significantly reduced cellular capacity is reasonable. However, the former have been the cause of a great many cell outages in the past, often lasting for days or weeks at a time, so I'm generally biased towards assuming most outages are caused by poor engineering, and extreme cost cutting at the expense of public safety, rather than reasonable, practical limitations.

Thanks to the architecture of cellular networks, it's actually practically possible for cells to be MORE RELIABLE than traditional land-lines, though that would obviously be an expensive proposition. As cellular prices fall, though (I'm paying $45/mo for unlimited everything), we should gradually be increasing the standards for cellular phone networks, rather than letting them completely race to the bottom, and cut costs to the bone at the expense of public safety.

(Disclaimer: I may or may not, work or have worked, for one or more major US cellular phone companies.)

Re:uh, this is common sense (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43477063)

The lower the frequencies in-use, the further over the horizon your cell signal can go, and therefore be load-balanced by possibly numerous cell towers.

The scarce resource isn't towers but radio spectrum. When mobile network operators cart in micro- and nano-cells to prepare for an event with many people in a small area, they do so to reduce the size of the cells which are in actual use. This enables the reuse of frequencies at smaller distances from an otherwise interfering cell. Any single cell can still only handle a limited number of concurrent calls. That's why you make the cells smaller, not bigger. Lower frequencies provide absolutely no benefit regarding frequency reuse.

Have you ever noticed that phones are for assholes (1)

For a Free Internet (1594621) | about a year and a half ago | (#43475363)

Assholes are always talking on phones or playimng with their phones, etc. Good people like me and Laura do not use sell phones frequently because it would interfere with avian life and other wondrous natural things. We have the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie.

Re:Have you ever noticed that phones are for assho (1)

wagnerrp (1305589) | about a year and a half ago | (#43475527)

What the hell is a "sell" phone? Who the hell is Laura, and why does she live like a bird?

Simple answer: (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43475385)

Physics

Re:Simple answer: (2)

Spectre (1685) | about a year and a half ago | (#43475549)

Simpler answer: Economics.

Re:Simple answer: (1)

jc42 (318812) | about a year and a half ago | (#43475677)

Physics

Economics

Nah; physics is much, much simpler than economics. Just ask any physicist. ;-)

sometimes (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43475459)

they shut off service to prevent any other potential bombs from being detonated by mobile phone.

Re:sometimes (4, Funny)

oodaloop (1229816) | about a year and a half ago | (#43475519)

They also said that Marcellus Wallace threw a man out of a window for giving Mia a foot massage.

Post a source, or STFU.

Re:sometimes (1)

DERoss (1919496) | about a year and a half ago | (#43475747)

No, the did not. The police and wireless companies both denied that cell service was turned off.

Re:sometimes (3, Informative)

twisted_pare (1714106) | about a year and a half ago | (#43475943)

I was there, 200m from the bombs. Phone never had issues sending texts, but could not us Google Voice or regular calling to place a call out. Never had an issue with data/text however, which was useful as I texted folks asking "WTF was that?" Local hardwired wifi never skipped a beat, but sites like Boston.com and Letsrun.com tanked almost instantly.

Re:sometimes (1)

Peter Desnoyers (11115) | about a year and a half ago | (#43475761)

There's a tweet from a WBZ reporter to that effect here: http://www.sbnation.com/2013/4/15/4228130/boston-marathon-explosion-cell-phone-shutdown
I don't know if it's true, though.

Re:sometimes (1)

arielCo (995647) | about a year and a half ago | (#43475829)

Umm ... you're looking for the comments section at CNN.com.

Maybe not "shut-off", just "restricted" (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43476769)

Not sure if cellular carriers are still doing it, but maybe 15 or so years ago their switching systems were capable of a "restricted" mode of operation. When in that mode only selected phone numbers assigned to various sorts of authorized emergency personnel were allowed to initiate or receive calls. On a tower-by-tower basis attempts by non-authorized phones to connect and dial out were dropped/ignored as were incoming calls to those phones.

Send a text.. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43475469)

It's a lot easier to squeeze a text through than it is to establish a voice connection.

Re:Send a text.. (2)

wagnerrp (1305589) | about a year and a half ago | (#43475571)

That's because you don't squeeze text through. Text messages are placed into what is otherwise wasted padding in the periodic keep-alive packets between your cell phone and the tower. If you are connected, you can send a text message.

Re:Send a text.. (1)

Peter Desnoyers (11115) | about a year and a half ago | (#43475779)

I can confirm that texts were getting through just fine to runners farther up the course (in my case, near BC) when cell calls weren't going through.

Cells in ADSL modems (1)

dargaud (518470) | about a year and a half ago | (#43475509)

The ADSL modem I recently got has a 'free wifi' mode which works with a password you receive at the same time than the modem, and you can use it on ANY modem from the same provider in the country. It uses a secondary channel as your own private (and protected) wifi. It's a great idea. But why don't they extend that and use the ADSL modem as a conduit for 3G/GSM/... cell ? It's probably mostly a software problem, then use the user's internet line to carry the info (without charging the user of course). Within range I have something like 8 other wifis, it could turn picocells into a reality: one per every home.

Re:Cells in ADSL modems (1)

autocracy (192714) | about a year and a half ago | (#43475553)

Because I'd put something behind the modem and rate-limit, filter, or otherwise alter the traffic. The quality of the service still isn't guaranteed without some agreement.

Re:Cells in ADSL modems (1)

LiENUS (207736) | about a year and a half ago | (#43475661)

If the picocell is built into the modem and the traffic never touches your home network how on earth would you rate-limit, filter or otherwise alter the traffic? You wouldn't ever have access to it, it would hit the dsl modem and go right out your line.

Re:Cells in ADSL modems (1)

loufoque (1400831) | about a year and a half ago | (#43475603)

It's not a software problem, it's a legal one.

Cell phone? (1, Funny)

geirlk (171706) | about a year and a half ago | (#43475531)

You mean that twitter/facebook/instragram update device come camera?

Nobody calls emergency services anymore, they just film the tragedy.

Re:Cell phone? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43476253)

To be honest, there was no reason for anyone to call 911 over this bombing.

Re:Cell phone? (1)

geirlk (171706) | about a year and a half ago | (#43476463)

That is true.

Although I've experienced gaggles of fudgenuts gathered around people lying either with seizures or actually literally bleeding in the street, taking photos and filming. Even go as far as commenting on their own video how "nobody is helping", where I as last responder have to help _and_ dial the emergency number.

That Sir, angers me.

PS: 1 1 3 , One-One-Three, for medical emergencies in Norway

Radio (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43475547)

CB, and Ham for emergencies. Get it. Love it.

The CB is also a really good way to get real-time traffic updates.

Re:Radio (4, Insightful)

k6mfw (1182893) | about a year and a half ago | (#43475821)

CB, and Ham for emergencies. Get it. Love it.

The CB is also a really good way to get real-time traffic updates.

well yes and no. You cannot break a radio transmission like you can with a phoneline or a cell system that gets overloaded. So 2-way radio is good for emergencies.

However, I have been changing my tune about ham radio that its real values are DIY/hacking/experimentation. You still have to pay a license fee (measly $14 to FCC every 10 years) and pay for equipment. You can open it because you own it (cannot do that with many cellphones) and you can modify it as you please (just keep the RF inside the ham bands). And when you have skill and talent to design/modify/implement wireless systems, you can be valuable to those who cannot.

Promoting ham radio only by emergency uses is limiting. Let's be honest, how many disasters occur that ham radio pays a key role? Not many (but don't get me wrong, many public safety officials see amateur radio operators as important resource). So all these people that get caught up in one-day ham cram and take ARES/RACES classes, then wait for the big one.... they get bored and go off and do something else. Emergency planning is important but it is not action-and-adventure where the hero ham parachutes in for the rescue.

CB can be great for traffic updates but for here in Silicon Valley the band is dead. There have been times when the highways backup beyond normal, would be great to call someone couple miles up 101 and ask what the situation is. But this is Silicon Valley and nobody comprehends frequencies less than 800 MHz.

Resilience (5, Interesting)

Todd Knarr (15451) | about a year and a half ago | (#43475551)

Part of it's not just whether the network fails, but how it fails. For instance, in a situation like this the network might be reconfigured to reject incoming calls to the area to keep that capacity free for people calling out. It might start throttling back voice calls to free up that capacity for emergency services and keep the data portion of the network running (and maybe drop the data portion back to 3G or even 2G so it could handle more simultaneous users). You wouldn't be able to call out, but you could still send and receive text messages. And the process for this should be in place. This kind of thing is rare and you can't predict when it'll happen, but it's a given that it will happen so the network operators should have a plan in place for what to do when it does.

And they should also be looking back to Ma Bell's studies on how to staff operators to handle phone calls. They found through a lot of study of real-world traffic that you can't staff for the average volume and successfully handle the calls. Calls tended to cluster, so if you wanted to keep wait times acceptable you had to staff for the peak volumes and accept that that meant you'd have idle capacity a lot of the time. I often get the feeling that the engineering side of the carriers understands this, but the business side doesn't quite grasp the idea of call volume not being a normal distribution.

Re:Resilience (1)

Todd Knarr (15451) | about a year and a half ago | (#43475587)

Bleh. Addendum: part of the process should be an indicator on the phone that means "network service degraded". Half the problem seems to be people being unclear on the fact that the network's being swamped. A visible indication on the phone won't help the deliberately oblivious, but it at least gives those with 2 working brain cells firing in sync a clear indication that yes the carrier knows about the situation, yes they're doing what they can, no you can't expect normal operation right now so just be patient and use SMS when you can.

Re:Resilience (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43476637)

Rule of thumb: If a site is being ddosed by having too many users, and receive a error, they will just refresh the page and do something in another tab while they wait.
Giving the phone a indicator won't change anything, except it might result in 5% less calls.

Re:Resilience (2)

twisted_pare (1714106) | about a year and a half ago | (#43475905)

During the Cold War there was a telco exchange in Northern Virginia (I forget the number) that if you dialed through would give your call Federal precedence. It was used by Congress/Senate and high up Federal employees. In the case of a national emergency, those calls would be routed first and others dropped to make way for them. This idea is nothing new. I'm sure something similar exists today with 911 or similar.

Re:Resilience (1)

Kjella (173770) | about a year and a half ago | (#43476235)

I often get the feeling that the engineering side of the carriers understands this, but the business side doesn't quite grasp the idea of call volume not being a normal distribution.

No, they just want to know who's paying and if nobody is then they're going to let it fail. For many years on New Year's Eve the cell phone system choked, everybody knew it would happen but were people willing to pay for that one night in the year? Were people going to switch providers based on that day's performance? Hell no, nobody cared that their "Happy New Year" text arrived at 6AM instead of midnight. Same for every other place that is full, sold out or whatever - they're passing up business because it doesn't pay to serve the biggest peaks and have so much idle capacity so often.

Re:Resilience (1)

DerekLyons (302214) | about a year and a half ago | (#43476995)

And they should also be looking back to Ma Bell's studies on how to staff operators to handle phone calls. They found through a lot of study of real-world traffic that you can't staff for the average volume and successfully handle the calls. Calls tended to cluster, so if you wanted to keep wait times acceptable you had to staff for the peak volumes and accept that that meant you'd have idle capacity a lot of the time. I often get the feeling that the engineering side of the carriers understands this, but the business side doesn't quite grasp the idea of call volume not being a normal distribution.

Except... Ma Bell didn't staff for peak volumes, they staffed for peak average. Even when Ma Bell was a monopoly and swimming in cash, they didn't have enough money to staff for peak volumes because that meant having (IIRC) something like 90%+ of your staff idle 90%+ of the time. (On the long distance trunks, IIRC, the peaks were Mother's Day and Christmas Day (the former far larger than the latter), and both were well over double the normal daily average.) But back then, people accepted that you weren't always able to get through as that was a fact of life and always had been. (By "back then", I mean "when I was a teen" - in the 1970's.) Nowadays however, fast computerized switches and high bandwidth trunks mean that not getting through is something that virtually never happens - leading to the unsupported belief that you're supposed to always get through... no matter what the conditions or how extreme the event.

It's typical oversubscription of a service (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43475567)

You provide an infrastructure that runs at 95% capacity for normal daily usage because it's cheaper than providing people what they actually pay for. The result being when everyone wants to use the service they pay for at the same time the infrastructure collapses.

Prime example is residential internet connections; get everyone on one UBR to download at the same time and watch it fall over completely.

Standard corporate greed.

Re:It's typical oversubscription of a service (1)

Gerner (684627) | about a year and a half ago | (#43475953)

Standard corporate greed.

It's not standard corporate greed, so much as standard consumer cheapness. It would be quite expensive to reserve bandwidth for every individual cell phone. Think about a T1 Internet circuit, 1.5 mbps, but always available for $500-$1000/month. Normal people are too cheap to commit to that kind of monthly payment for cell or internet service. In fact, most people are happy they can be oversubscribed 10+ to 1 to save cost.

Re:It's typical oversubscription of a service (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43476089)

A prime example is government funded roads. Corporate greed and M$ $hills all over the place!

How dare they not build everyone a private road?!

Re:It's typical oversubscription of a service (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43476359)

+1 Insightful

Peer to peer alterniative (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43475597)

Is there any peer to peer alternatives available for this type of scenario?

You dont need a terrorist event for that ... (1)

YoungManKlaus (2773165) | about a year and a half ago | (#43475655)

silvester will do just fine (at least some years ago it was always funny to get texts somewhen at noon the next day, not such an issue any more luckily)

What an incoherent wall of fucking text (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43475739)

Go fuck off, slashdot.

Re:What an incoherent wall of fucking text (1)

Gerner (684627) | about a year and a half ago | (#43476085)

Go fuck off, slashdot.

If 14 lines of text without a paragraph break is incoherent to someone, then I would imagine that someone hasn't picked up a novel of any size recently. It's less than half a page, it has appropriate punctuation, and the sentence structures are fine. Just relax and read.

normal buildout when I worked was 20% (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43475813)

I used to work for a company in upstate NY - Redcom Labs - and we manufactured CO's/PBX's/etc. Since day one (long before I started) their systems were always solid state so when they were used for CO installs, it was always in niche markets like Alaska or remote parts of the continental states. Anyways, wwhen we would spec out a quote for a customer, it was always for enough lines for 20% of the population as the peaks during normal call volumes would be covered by this amount of equipement. It didn't make sense to have a huge number of unused lines just in case of an emergency - it doesn't make financial sense unless the government is paying for it.

Obviously east-bum-fuck America doesn't always translate well to urban centers, but I can't imagine they would install more equipment than is needed during normal call volumes on the off chance you have a disaster. Their goal is to make a profit and they're gonna run their operations as slim as possible.

Mesh routing? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43475843)

I do wonder if a good mesh routing software would be able to work in situations like that. Working over wifi and routing calls without the use of the cell network. It should really be possible since a lot of people were looking for each other although everyone was at the marathon. On the other hand I do wonder how you can establish identity in that situation.

Oy, the irony (1)

sl4shd0rk (755837) | about a year and a half ago | (#43475883)

The one time we really need technology to do something besides email imgur links or annoy people on Twitter, it fails. Probably best anyway as most of the traffic I saw was just "ZOMG..first post.." drama anyway.

Next week on BoingBoing (3, Insightful)

sootman (158191) | about a year and a half ago | (#43475941)

Why It's So Hard For a Crowd To Leave a Burning Building Through The Only Exit Doors.

I mean really, WTF?

Re:Next week on BoingBoing (1)

twisted_pare (1714106) | about a year and a half ago | (#43475969)

Ever heard of Coconut Grove?

NCS/GETS (3, Informative)

Hartree (191324) | about a year and a half ago | (#43475987)

In fact, this very problem is why there is a US government program that lets certain emergency personnel/offices have priority over normal telephone traffic.

This is also why we don't normally see phone numbers in the 710 area code.

See: http://gets.ncs.gov/program_info.html [ncs.gov] for an overview.

(Wow, I feel like I'm back on comp.dcom.telecom)

Re:NCS/GETS (1)

necrogram (675897) | about a year and a half ago | (#43476347)

There's that, and there's also ruthless preemption, so that when the system is at capacity and a responder with a flagged number needs to make a call, the switch will drop someone else's call to let the responder through

Two words: Under Provisioning. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43476059)

Its how networks are deployed when their purpose is to make money for the provider.

Emergency lines, Emergency frequencies (1)

erroneus (253617) | about a year and a half ago | (#43476303)

Why is that so hard. We just need an emergency network for our phones is all. Why tie up the basic services?

the capacity problem (3, Interesting)

nimbius (983462) | about a year and a half ago | (#43476305)

gets shit thrown at it from both sides. providers dont feel the need to invest in more towers and users understandably get angry when this problem manifests in dropped calls and network outages.

to curtail the issue, emergency coverage services like COW and COLT (Cellular on Wheels, Cellular on Light Truck) have been bastardized by carriers to augment connectivity for sports events and serve as standby relays during repairs. COW and COLT were designed by the industries to respond to hurricanes and tornados but the allure of having a tower-on-wheels it understandably too budget-friendly for any carrier to pass up. oversubscription and markup are what keep cellular industries alive, just like shared hosting or airlines.
the other issue is as TFA highlights, cellular is just not as robust as say, 25 core ASTRO multi-zone digital radio...arguably because the need just isnt there. if 1 in 5 people cant make contact during an emergency its not a problem, cellphones can be borrowed or the calls can be retried. in law enforcement and emergency services, the PTT button has to work every time no matter what, as a loss of service could result in an emergency turning into a catastrophe.

finally, what i consider 'dark devices' can also create an outage automatically. fire alarms, burglary alarms, and even SIGALERT and some EAS systems (yes, EAS, its cost saving/kickback jack-assery found in flyover states all the time.) for the city/state are critically dependent on cellular networks. in the event of an emergency the activation of hundreds of these devices at once can black out the network pretty fast.

busy phone circuits affect all phones (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43476467)

I remember reading an article about busy phone circuits, but i forgot the source. i think it was on a local news TV station. landline phones might not work well in an emergency. do people still use them?? just kidding. Calls from landline or cell phones phone have difficulty connecting because the phone circuits / computers are near full capacity during emergency.

it is easier to send a text message or e-mail with a 3G device or via free wireless at an internet hotspot like a hotel or coffee shop. post updates on Twitter, Facebook, MySpace or LiveJournal if you can. do people still use MySpace?? lol but if the internet infrastructure is damaged like in an earthquake or flood, not sure what you could do besides write a post card or a telegram. anyone still use morse code with the overhead wires like I saw in the movie Balto 1, 2, or 3? Just saying.

sorry for the wall of text

FTA (1)

AndyKron (937105) | about a year and a half ago | (#43476677)

FTA. The reason it's so hard to make calls in an emergency is because the government shuts down the goddamn phones!

This is precisely why (1)

kilodelta (843627) | about a year and a half ago | (#43476969)

I keep my amateur radio license up to date and I carry an HT with me all the time. You never know.

Ara ara (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43476993)

Editor-kun, your writing skills are fucking terrible.

everyone needed to just take a deep breath (2)

SuperBanana (662181) | about a year and a half ago | (#43477041)

When a bomb goes off, you do NOT need to call everyone you know to say "OMG I'm OK!!!!!!" Seriously - the panic is the problem, not the network. Unless you're hurt and need help, put the phone away and keep the airwaves clear for emergency responders - maybe text ONE person and say "hey can you put up on my FB wall that I'm ok?" In fact, go one step further and put your phone into airplane mode and save your battery life, because in a real emergency, charging the phone is going to be a bigger problem. At the very least, disable syncing services. It was amazing how many people thought it was necessary to call everyone they knew in their lives to MIGHT have been running in the marathon or lived somewhere in Boston.
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