911 Is a Joke

It’s probably just my freedom-denying, government-loving, wet blanket liberalism talking, but this is bullshit:

“The laws of physics are at work here. People naturally, when they see a situation like this will get on the phone and make heavy volumes of calls, and there can be congestion, and that’s what we’re experiencing here,” said Mark Siegel, AT&T’s executive director of media relations.

We have no idea what kind of excess capacity the wireless carriers have, we don’t know if they test their networks regularly to check whether they meet their capacity standards, we don’t know exactly how many calls were dropped yesterday, and we don’t know if those carriers are going to change anything based on yesterday’s experience of a surge of call volume on their undamaged networks. All we know is that yesterday proved once again that the device that we have in our hands on the day a disaster strikes — a device that is the only form of communication for a hell of a lot of people — almost certainly won’t work during a disaster. And we’ve convinced ourselves that regulating that device and the enormously profitable oligopoly that runs it would make Adam Smith’s ghost cry salty tears.

Update: Also, too: you won’t be able to text 911 for “five to ten years”.






96 replies
  1. 1
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    And we’ve convinced ourselves that regulating that device and the enormously profitable oligopoly that runs it would make Adam Smith’s ghost cry salty tears.

    That’s probably because The Wealth of Nations is the most cited, yet most unread, book there is out there.

    The things that are supposedly endorsed by Smith are the things he RAILS about in the book.

  2. 2
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    Oh, and the answer to this:

    We have no idea what kind of excess capacity the wireless carriers have, we don’t know if they test their networks regularly to check whether they meet their capacity standards, we don’t know exactly how many calls were dropped yesterday, and we don’t know if those carriers are going to change anything based on yesterday’s experience of a surge of call volume on their undamaged networks.

    The answer is the engineers who designed these networks probably built in a great deal of excess just for such a eventuality, based on years of experience. They were, of course, overruled by beancounting MBAs who were eager to “cut costs” and sacrifice quality that can’t be translated into bonuses for them, unlike cost cutting measures to boost stock price and profit.

  3. 3
    MarkJ says:

    I agree with Villago – leave Adam Smith out of all this libertarian BS. I have actually read the Wealth of Nations and parts of his Theory of Moral Sentiments and a lot of what is ascribed to him isn’t really anything he said or would condone.

    If you want, use Hayek, although even he saw a need to provide universal health insurance and hence wasn’t as anti-general-public-welfare as the current crop of libertarians. Let’s just use Ayn Rand from now on – she’s the only one crazy and wrong enough to suffice.

  4. 4
    MattR says:

    All we know is that yesterday proved once again that the device that we have in our hands on the day a disaster strikes—a device that is the only form of communication for a hell of a lot of people—almost certainly won’t work during a disaster.

    Two quick comments:
    First – text messaging worked fine
    Second – The only way to prevent a similar problem is to design the system so it can handle every customer making a call simultaneously, and I am not sure if that is a good idea or overkill.

    Having said that, the government should be able to declare something like a state of emergency which means that all cell carriers send a text message reminding their customers that texting is more efficient and less strain on the network and alerting them that all texting is free for the duration of the crisis.

  5. 5
    MarkJ says:

    @MattR: Text messaging worked fine for a time, but I had to try 4 times to get a text message through around 3:00 because the first two attempts failed. This is on Verizon’s “can you hear me now” network. To answer your question Mr. Verizon asshole: No, I couldn’t hear anyone, and I couldn’t write them either.

  6. 6
    Belafon (formerly anonevent) says:

    Of course we know the answer to what you say is unknowable. Too much excess capacity is a waste of money. The carriers build just enough network to handle slightly more than the maximum expected traffic on the worst day of the year. It’s not designed for emergencies.

    I’m not sure, though, the landline switching network could handle all of the traffic you are describing either, though it didn’t have to exactly worry about it because most of the time people weren’t near a phone like they are now.

    But, if people were truly concerned about it, they would have their ham radio licenses.

  7. 7
    MarkJ says:

    And the real issue here is that this wasn’t a real disaster and even so, the communications network was an epic fail.

  8. 8
    Brian R. says:

    If people die in a massive emergency, that’s just the almighty Invisible Hand at work.

    Jeez, you liberals don’t understand anything about the miracle of the free market.

  9. 9
    jheartney says:

    @MattR:

    all texting is free for the duration of the crisis.

    One reason the telcos might not like this is it would put a spotlight on why we get charged anything for texting in the first place. As far as data logistics goes, texting is a negligible factor compared to voice.

  10. 10
    Jim Pharo says:

    I wonder if the South Koreans are as unaware of their cel networks limitations as we are of ours…

    Letting corporations run public policy is a recipe for a banana republic. Smart nations regulate their businesses to ensure the general welfare of society. We don’t. We’ve already fallen far behind, and seem committed to doing everything we can to fall even further behind as fast as we can.

    I hope the ghost of Lewis Powell is pleased.

  11. 11
    Brother Shotgun of Sweet Reason says:

    But, if people were truly concerned about it, they would have their ham radio licenses.

    Yep. That’s why I renewed mine in 1999. I wonder where I packed the radio and the charger.

  12. 12
    mistermix says:

    @MattR: You can’t text 911.

    @Belafon (formerly anonevent): The *regulated* landline switched network has been upgraded over the years to be able to handle peak call volumes. It failed in the past and after those failures, it was fixed. So I don’t know if it would have worked, either, but my guess is that it’s more likely to have worked than the cell network.

  13. 13
    Amanda in the South Bay says:

    When I read the thread title, I thought it said “9/11 is a joke,” since the 10th anniversary is in a couple of weeks,.

  14. 14
    Samara Morgan says:

    you are a liberal?

    pardon, but i thot you were a glibertarian pimp.

  15. 15
    Raven (formerly stuckinred) says:

    @Amanda in the South Bay: Me too! Course I though you were in Hermosa too.

  16. 16
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @jheartney:

    Voice eats bandwidth like Homer Simpson at a chili cookoff. These networks are all digital, and digitally sending voice is much more resource intensive than text.

    Hence, texting gets through better when the network is stressed.

    But you’re absolutely right…the networks don’t want us looking at their pricing plans. So many of these additional “features” are trivial to support in terms of actual resources, but they’ve evolved into profit centers, and the telcos charge a premium for them. For example, did you know it takes more work to make a number listed than to leave it unlisted? Yet you’re charged for the “privilege” of having an unlisted number.

  17. 17
    MattR says:

    @mistermix:

    You can’t text 911.

    Seems like this should have been corrected years ago. Is there a reason they decided not to implement that?

    Semi-related, on 9/11 the cell networks were jammed as well. Additionally, you couldn’t make long distance calls into or out of NYC. That put me in a relatively unique position of being outside NYC but able to dial into any land line pretty consistently because I had a cell phone with a 917 area code (NYC) but was located far enough away that I was able to get service. Was very nice once I figured out that I could call my friends’ apartments and got ahold of everyone. Since I had no issues making long distance calls to the rest of the country I was also able to conference in a friend of mine who worked at 7 WTC with his parents in Seattle so he could let them know he was OK.

    @jheartney: @Villago Delenda Est: Good points that semi-flittered across my mind as I was typing it (and really the reason why the government would have to impose it as opposed tot he cell companies doing it voluntarily as s service.)

  18. 18
    scav says:

    @mistermix: Isn’t that what happened on that ever so defining cultural moment of 9-11? But in this new world, regulation is socia1sm and back-up and alternative systems not cost-efficient. Business works on an Just-in-Time paradigm (remember car plants here after the latest Japaneses earthquake?) — Just-in-Case doesn’t factor into it. Everything is trimmed to the bone. Even basic levels of service will be trimmed to maintain profit, exactly up to the point where the customers opt out.

  19. 19
    Eric S. says:

    I live three blocks from Wrigley Field in Chicago. If there’s a Cubs game on my phone is all but useless. Phone calls? No chance in hell. Wireless Internet access? HAH! The only thing that sorta works is texting and sometimes that’s questionable.

  20. 20
    Gin & Tonic says:

    Actually, the engineering and mathematics behind what’s called “traffic engineering” are sophisticated and rigorous. Google “Erlang” for a starting point.

    That said, in real life it’s always an attempt at balance, as was said upthread, between what the engineering says and what the suits will pay for.

  21. 21
    PeakVT says:

    That’s a ridiculous complaint. We don’t build anything for maximum potential use in a disaster – roads, power grid, emergency rooms, etc. I suspect the cell systems have enough capacity to handle people calling, finding out if the person on the other end is okay, and then hanging up before engaging in idle chatter. But human nature is such that people will stay on the line and essentially repeat OMGWTF for hours because the voices of loved ones is comforting (at least in times of crisis).

    Emergency services largely have their own separate communications channels anyway. Organizations that had trouble communicating yesterday should consider moving their people off the public cell networks.

  22. 22
    Continental Op says:

    I was in Tuscaloosa, home of the University of Alabama, when football coach Bear Bryant died. So many people tried to make a telephone call to spread the news to friends and family that the hardwired telephone system went down. No dial tone.

  23. 23
    scav says:

    @Gin & Tonic: Suits. If only the digits could carry a better sneering tone. Just thought of an alternative for what MBA actually means but Must Be A$$@$$!^@+=) probably shouldn’t go out clear signal as it’s a bit of a blanket and extreme solution. Oh, and I apologize for using the dreaded moderated s-word earlier and dragging things into moderation.

  24. 24
    Dennis SGMM says:

    We had a nice shaker here about a year ago. I went to the USGS website and saw that the epicenter was around six miles from where my wife works so I picked up the cel to call her work number – and got nothing. Then I plugged in the land line and called her with no problem.

    When the Whittier quake (Epicenter about ten miles away from us and a humdinger even by California standards) struck several years ago cel phones weren’t nearly as ubiquitous as they are now. In the hours after that one you couldn’t get through to anyone on the land line.

    When the Big One hits both land and cel will probably be saturated in minutes even if there’s no damage to their infrastructures.

  25. 25
    p.a. says:

    @mistermix: I don’t know what the source is for this Belafon comment (I realize it’s not mrmix’s) . Why would they spend $$ upgrading a system people are leaving in droves? You may be referring to a move from digital-electronic switches to ‘soft’ (IP based) switches for landlines. But it doesn’t matter. The old landline switches aren’t built for 100% customer traffic, and neither are the cells. (Prolly around 30%). It’s a question of transport equipment power use and cpu capacity and power use. God bless anyone who agitates for 100% capacity- it will be a great job creator.

    p.a. IBEW 2323

  26. 26
    RossInDetroit says:

    @Villago Delenda Est:

    For example, did you know it takes more work to make a number listed than to leave it unlisted? Yet you’re charged for the “privilege” of having an unlisted number.

    This is because telephone books have advertising all over them and the fewer numbers are in there the less the ads are worth.
    Basically, they’re selling you to advertisers and docking you if you decline to be sold. Sound familiar?

  27. 27
    catclub says:

    @PeakVT: All true, but I think he was pointing out the transparency issues. With roads and hospital emergency rooms we have better idea of when things are full reaching capacity. Not so the phone system.

  28. 28

    Also, this:

    Quake sensors removed around Virginia nuke plant due to budget cuts
    A nuclear power plant that was shut down after an earthquake struck central Virginia Tuesday had seismographs removed in 1990s due to budget cuts.
    __
    U.S. nuclear officials said that the North Anna Power Station, which has two nuclear reactors, had lost offsite power and was using diesel generators to maintain cooling operations after an 5.9 earthquake hit the region.

    But it was the 1990s so that was, ya know, Clinton’s fault, yada yada blabbedy blah.

  29. 29
    whiskey says:

    Vonage worked great!

  30. 30
    RossInDetroit says:

    Consider also that the cell phone system is currently building out at a rapid pace trying to match increasing volume. TXT takes miniscule amounts of data. Voice, quite a lot more. New services like streaming video take colossal amounts.
    It’s bad when everyone tries to make a call during a disaster. When everyone wants to log on to CNN from their smartphone and stream a newscast it’s impossible.

  31. 31

    Doesn’t anyone remember 9/11? Have we forgotten?

    No one in the entire fucking country could make a phone call. You’d think in the past 10 years we would have realized the system needs to be upgraded or something.

  32. 32
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @Southern Beale:

    Doesn’t anyone remember 9/11? Have we forgotten?

    We only remember the perpetrators, what religion they were (yet, interestingly, not their specific nationality, as that conflicts with the storyline we need to invade Iraq), we’ve forgotten all the detail on what they did, and we never bothered to examine their motives in detail, particularly those parts of their motives that were critical of us.

    Not that some of us didn’t try, but you know how it is…if you dare to suggest that perhaps the motives of those responsible had something to do with our behavior, well, that’s just wrong, you know. They hate us for our freedumb. That’s the ticket!

  33. 33
    Dennis SGMM says:

    @RossInDetroit:

    The cel carriers ought to consider shutting down streaming and limiting calls to three minutes of connection time in the affected areas when there’s a disaster.

    EDIT: The Emergency broadcast system can take over the broadcast and cable networks when there’s an emergency so there is a precedent.

  34. 34
    scav says:

    Here’s a question. Mechanical break-down sure (dead air), but I can’t think of a time when I picked up a land-line and got a system busy signal, can’t even think what that signal would be. I’m not even necessarily talking about during a crisis even, just periods of high-volume use. I really think we’ve gotten used to crappier levels of service over time. At the beginning, it was accepted as a trade-off for the new whiz-bang features but it’s been a while now. Systems to a degree have to be over-engineered, over-built, otherwise you get things like the bridge-collapse in MN.

  35. 35
    RossInDetroit says:

    @Dennis SGMM:

    The cel carriers ought to consider shutting down streaming and limiting calls to three minutes of connection time in the affected areas when there’s a disaster.

    I totally agree. I used to work in IT in the service restoration section of a power utility. There were very clear plans for allocation of resources when outages happened.

  36. 36
    PurpleGirl says:

    @MattR: On that day, I think landlines worked depending on where you were. I live in Woodside and became the hub for several friends to connect with relatives. And it was weird: one friend in MD couldn’t get her brother in Roosevelt (LI) but could get me and I could get him. Ditto for a friend in New Baltimore (NY) who couldn’t get Staten Island but could get me and I could get Staten Island. I was passing on questions and answers for them and a few other people.

  37. 37
    Dennis SGMM says:

    It just occurred to me that mistermix may be setting off a firestorm over in Crazyland:

    “911 is a Joke” writes Liberal Blogger!

    “Liberals Mock 911 Dead!”

    “911 is a Joke? What would NYC’s heroic fire fighters have to say about that?”

    etc.

  38. 38
    Shinobi says:

    @Eric S.: IT’s true! Any time there is any kind of event cell phones become useless here. I feel like this got much worse after smartphones became more common. I remember the first Pride after the iPhone came out, I couldn’t get a call out all day.

  39. 39
    ET says:

    You couldn’t even text someone for about an hour.

  40. 40
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @scav:

    When the telcos went from being utilities that had a steady, but not spectacular, return on investment, and furthermore were viewed not as a means to make money hand over fist but a vocation and a service to the public, things were different.

    Then Reagan and that entire mindset came along.

    One of the things the advent of computers did to communications was upset some of the design assumptions of the publically switched telephone network. The clearest example of this is the assumption of how long a phone call would last. For decades, the assumption was (and the data on actual connect times supported this assumption) that the average call was three minutes, wheeler-dealer businessmen and teenage girls notwithstanding.

    The advent of dialup services shattered this assumption. People would stay connected over their phone lines, through the switches (which handle every connection) for much longer than three minutes, on average, and that created what is known as more “fast busy” tones in your handset…the switch was saturated and could not process your call, because all those damn nerds were using their 300 baud modems to play MUDs.

    So, the engineers had to go back to the boards to figure out how to alter the capacity of the switches to handle all these much longer connections. They found solutions, too.

    The thing is, this is in the era of “can we milk this for more revenue, and hence more profit” so that became an overriding concern, above and beyond the more technical issues.

  41. 41
    scav says:

    Well, here’s an interesting little OT bit about what the heroic NYC Police have been getting up to with the help of the CIA. NYPD apparently even has overseas, let alone out of state, operations.

  42. 42

    @Dennis SGMM:

    I agree, there probably aren’t that many people in Crazyland who would have understood the reference. 911 not 9-11

    911’s a Joke Public Enemy

    But how many people from Crazyland actually read this blog?

  43. 43
    Robert Sneddon says:

    The cellphone operators could build out more capacity, more cell towers and switches but there’s no way to build out radio spectrum and with thirty million people all trying to use the same few megahertz of radio space at the same time to contact their loved ones then there isn’t going to be a lot of actual communication going on.

    Cellphones aren’t like landlines which make a single voice connection from one handset to another. With cells basically everybody is shouting down a single pipe of fixed capacity and there’s no way to make that conduit larger — we’re already using every trick in the book to compress and reduce the voice and data to fit yet more customers in.

    If you want a really disaster-proof cellphone system then mandate that consumer handsets can be bricked on command, at least temporarily to allow people like doctors, firemen etc. to communicate, get orders, do stuff. Of course there’s no way that sort of legislation would ever get passed as everyone would regard it as a great breach of their civil liberties.

  44. 44
    LoudounLib says:

    @ET:

    Yep. While my landline had a dial tone yesterday, I couldn’t make any outgoing calls for probably an hour. Texting didn’t work either from my cell (I have Verizon for both services). I’m in northern VA, so it may have been system overload after the quake.

    On the next-gen 911 thing, I can tell you as a recently retired 911 dispatcher that this topic has been hotly discussed for quite a while in our industry. No doubt one day it will be implemented; the problem these days of course is budget and staffing cuts. Most 911 centers are understaffed, and it would require dedicating more staff to handle that subsection of incoming text messages and TTY calls for the hearing impaired. I do hope one day that all the pieces can come together for the concept to work, because it would be helpful to so many people.

  45. 45
    arguingwithsignposts says:

    The cell networks can’t even handle a *planned* event like SXSW without bringing in additional temporary cell towers – and they *know* those g33ks are going to wear on the network. Why is anyone surprised the networks can’t handle an emergency?

  46. 46
  47. 47
    Dennis SGMM says:

    @magurakurin:

    But how many people from Crazyland actually read this blog?

    These days it would only take one. A couple of turns around the RW blog, talk radio, and email-forwarding ring and we’d be accused of pledging allegiance to AQ.

  48. 48
    Mnemosyne says:

    This is why I insist we keep a landline in our apartment even though we both have cell phones — at least we’ll have some way to try and call out when the Big One hits So Cal.

  49. 49
    Dennis SGMM says:

    @Jewish Steel:
    No matter how cynical I become I just can’t keep up.

  50. 50
    scav says:

    @Villago Delenda Est: Ah, so there was a fast-busy signal — would those come out of the central office, what was it, the NNX part of the code, not the NPA/Area Code (I’ve probably forgotten the exact NANPA coding, my father was working on the edges of telecommunications during the 80s but his interests rather dominated supper conversations). He was there during the breakup into the Baby Bells and I remember having conversations even then about the whole public utility, even public/government security infrastructure vs. money-spinning consumer good roles that were being muddled by the breakup. I’ve always had the impressing that there was a belts and braces role for land-lines, rather like RRs and interstates.

  51. 51
    aretino says:

    Also, too: you won’t be able to text 911 for “five to ten years”.

    So, just a few years after everyone switches to BBM or the equivalent.

  52. 52
    PurpleGirl says:

    @LoudounLib: Yeah, why would we want to either pay higher fees or more general taxes to improve the infrastructure that we need to help ourselves in times of disaster, amirite?

  53. 53
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @Mnemosyne:

    One major problem is that, once again, people take things for granted based on day to day experience, not the outliers, and they don’t bother with a landline if they’ve got a cell, and then, when they need it in a community (as opposed to individual or personal) emergency, it doesn’t work.

    You need to have a land line, you can’t rely on the cell all the time, it’s very much a matter of physics (as Robert Sneddon outlines at #42) there’s only so much capacity over the air, and you’re sharing that resource with everyone, unlike your own personal phone line. This doesn’t mean that you won’t encounter the fast busy (see my comment earlier on that) in a community emergency, but it’s going to be less difficult to get through that jam than the cell phone jam. Plus, you have the comfort of knowing that it’s not just you.

  54. 54
    jheartney says:

    @Villago Delenda Est: Before we get too nostalgic for the halcyon days of ultra-regulated Ma Bell, remember also that they had maybe two or three phone form factors, you were forbidden by law from owning a handset, and multiple handsets in a home were relatively rare as you got charged for each one. Not to say that either the current wild west or the earlier locked-down paradigm are totally evil, just that there’s a tradeoff going from one to the other. Personally I agree we’re way too far to the unregulated side at the moment.

  55. 55
    LoudounLib says:

    @PurpleGirl:

    ‘Zackly!

  56. 56
    dpCap says:

    Somehow I don’t have much sympathy for the idiots who called 911 during yesterday’s “quake.”

    Did you know that during the blackouts in Los Angeles a few years back, a massive number of people were calling 911 because they wanted to know what that glowing thing was in the sky.

    You know what that thing was? The Milky Way Galaxy.

  57. 57
    The Snarxist Formerly Known As Kryptik says:

    Maybe they need to get Digital Drano for those series of tubes they’re using to truck everyone’s calls through.

    You’d think emergency sitches like this would be the perfect impetus to push for municipal telecom stuff, at least for the essentials. But that’s just my marxism flaring up again, don’tcha know, that’s why I’m a political pariah in this country.

  58. 58
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @jheartney:

    Not to mention the utterly unheard of having more than one phone line into a residence. Heck, having a second phone instrument on the same line was not the norm.

    It was a very different world, with very different assumptions, back in the days of regulated Ma Bell…but then again, that era gave us Ernestine (“We don’t care. We don’t have to. We’re the phone company!”)

  59. 59
    Joel says:

    A lot of things bother me about cell-phone providers, but this isn’t really one of them.

    For one, you can text 911 in Seattle, which is great for discreetly reporting crimes without drawing attention to yourself. This indicates that the problem with 911/texting lies with local governments, not necessarily the telecomms.

    For another, the cellphone is a blessing and a curse for emergency reporting, since everyone can (physically) make a call without having to find a landline, and they don’t need to worry about lines being knocked down in their neighborhood, which you might expect in the event of a natural disaster. The problem is capacity, as you pointed out…

  60. 60
    chopper says:

    @Villago Delenda Est:

    actually, it’s more that while the engineers who planned the network set up a good amount of excess capacity, that hasn’t grown since then while the number of customers has mushroomed. the carriers did jack and shit to expand their coverage and used the excess capacity originally set aside for emergencies and the like as a ‘freebie’.

  61. 61
  62. 62

    OT

    Well, this here is totally fucked up and appears quite illegal to me. I figure Cole will be all over it today, like stink on shit, as he should be.

  63. 63
    scav says:

    @Joel: There’s still infrastructure that can be taken out of commission in case of actual physical destruction during a bigger emergency (cells are entirely run by magic). Excuse the pedantic side-note.

  64. 64

    […] know the 411 on your 911. When you most need your cell phone, it won’t work. Like yesterday. Blame the oligarchy. But the real shocker this morning? In the next disaster Sprint will have an iPhone 5. That […]

  65. 65
    sugarfoot says:

    Jesus Mountain Dew Christ, how long are you going to keep talking about this fucking earthquake? FUCK! They happen. And when they happen your cell phone doesn’t fucking work. Get over it.

    This temblor would have gotten 30 seconds on the nightly news here in SoCal, and you all are acting like you just survived Katrina. STOP IT!

  66. 66
    de stijl says:

    Can’t believe that no one has linked to Louis CK’s bit about cell phones from Hilarious so here it is.

  67. 67
    MikeJ says:

    @dpCap:

    Somehow I don’t have much sympathy for the idiots who called 911 during yesterday’s “quake.”

    Nice that yesterday’s damage was minor. What happens when it’s not?

    If they can’t provide enough capacity to deal with emergencies, I wonder if they can reserve capacity for 911 calls.

  68. 68
    different church-lady says:

    Your damn cellphone is not a constitutional right, even in an emergency, and even if you sign up to get deeply gouged for it once a month.

    I don’t like to be the kind of person who rags on the front pagers, but I’m sensing a theme with you mistermix: constantly complaining about how lousy optional/luxury/novelty technology companies are.

    @Robert Sneddon:

    we’re already using every trick in the book to compress and reduce the voice and data to fit yet more customers in.

    Which is exactly why one can’t carry on an audible conversation on a cellphone. Remember the days when you and the other person could both hear each other if you were speaking at the same time? No? I guess it’s just us Victorian era folks…

    @Villago Delenda Est: I agree, but there’s no saying the land lines are going to function correctly in a genuinely huge quake (you know, the kind where people actually need to call each other for public saftey). Not to mention the plumbing. Or the electricity…

  69. 69
    Joel says:

    @General Stuck:

    I knew a Mossad guy who did something along those lines in the Boston area years back. He was crap at his job (ergo the fact that I knew he was a Mossad guy).

    @scav:

    Obviously, but towers are a little more durable than lines.

  70. 70
    different church-lady says:

    @de stijl: I was going to get to it! Honest!

    @sugarfoot:

    This temblor would have gotten 30 seconds on the nightly news here in SoCal, and you all are acting like you just survived Katrina. STOP IT!

    I agree. But if SoCal ever gets half an inch of snow then it’ll be vice to the versa.

  71. 71

    @sugarfoot:

    indeed. and coupled with the articles and calls for preparation in the Northeast for a mere Category 3 hurricane that might, maybe, possible come near the Mid Atlantic region, I’m thinking there are a lot of folks who should never ever consider moving to, say, Japan, where I live. 5.8 quakes and approaching Cat 3 storms is just what we call August…

  72. 72
    scav says:

    @Joel: Depends on the exact circs towers v. lines. Buried land lines v. exposed towers and exposed land-lines during a hurricane would go one way, earthquakes might take out everything, I see them as different and probably complementary beasts.

  73. 73
    LoudounLib says:

    @sugarfoot:

    Sure, they happen – but not so much on the east coast. Cut us some slack.

  74. 74
    Ruckus says:

    During the northridge quake land lines did not work for us and this was before “everyone” had a cell phone.
    During 9/11 my cell worked very well but others sitting next to me on the plane did not.
    Capacity is always going to be a problem when everyone wants to call, cell or landline. What ever did we do before cell phones while traveling? How could we call someone to let them know we were standing up on the plane, that we were walking towards the exit, that we are on the jetway, that we are in the terminal, etc, etc, etc, etc… And yes I have heard that call repeated time after time. How did the world survive without the ability to annoy not only those who regularly put up with us but everyone within earshot? And why do we need to pay for that privilege? There are many other needs far more important in this world.

  75. 75
    drkrick says:

    In NoVA, I couldn’t get a call through on either landline or cell for about 20 minutes after the shake, then both seemed to come up at about the same time. This was similar to, but shorter, than what I experienced on 9/11.

    9/11 was the making of BlackBerry in this town. Because they had only just gone on line, they had so much excess capacity that they really could handle even WTF-peak volume and all the White House hotshots with BB had no problems. They bragged about it to their buddies, so immediately all the political appointees in town had to have BBs with the magical technology that wouldn’t crash in an emergency like a regular cell phone. You try convincing them otherwise …

  76. 76
    Ella in New Mexico says:

    These companies are just taking a page out of the successful playbook of oil and gas companies, who for years have reduced reserves in order to maintain the highest profits. When an emergency comes around, or the even more predictable summer driving season, they can claim that demand outstripped supply, then charge premium prices.

    The com companies have absolutely NO incentive–aka, pressure from the government–to expand emergency network capacity. It’s money in the bank, even if a couple of people’s calls don’t go thru, thanks to 2 year contracts, what’s anyone gonna do to them anyway?

  77. 77
    Martin says:

    @chopper: Yeah. You get the same problem with all infrastructure – the better you make it, the more demand arrives to use it. Double the width of the freeway and everyone notices how short the commute is from x miles away, they move x miles away, double the number of cars that now need to go down the freeway, and you’re right back where you started. Mobile isn’t much different.

    But the whole national mobile infrastructure is a clusterfuck. The very premise of having multiple, simultaneous standards (Fucking standards, how do they work?!) is a stupid fucking idea, and the whole thing gets worse from there. I think if Obama and the Dems want to mobilize the base, they should consider fixing that one thing. Good lord would it have a broad, meaningful impact on everyone in this country. Raise my taxes and fix my fucking phone coverage, Obama!

  78. 78
    mikeyes says:

    This is exactly the situation in which old school ham radio operators thrive. Not only is there a wide band width, but there are a myriad of ways to text, talk, or code a message, all for free, and no amount of natural disaster will stop it. All you have to do is be smart (to pass the test) and have a radio. (Of course that also eliminates 95% of cell phone users.)

    Ham radio worked in Haiti when nothing else did because a sophisticated radio system can be powered by a car battery. Radios can become their own cell towers passing on messages around the world if needed. Most importantly, ham radio operators train to pass on information in an efficient manner, something cell phone users will never achieve.

    73s,

    KE7ES

  79. 79
    Retired 911 Supervisor says:

    Two things you haven’t factored in:
    1. 911 centers only have a specific number of incoming lines [mine had 40]. This means only 40 calls at a time can come through; calls 41 through X got busy signal and had to dial again.
    2. 911 centers only have a specific number of people to answer the phone. Mine never had more than 20 on duty at one time, and only had 110 employees overall. So 40 incoming trunks was still twice as much capacity as could be utilized in a major emergency.

    A shooting in a crowded area or a wreck on a crowded highway can max out the incoming trunks and available operators very quickly. The last earthquake I worked maxed them out in 1 minute, and they stayed maxed for over an hour. Oh, and every single person I talked to was calling just to confirm that an earthquake had happened. No one needed help or was reporting damage.

    Also, 911 operators don’t just transcribe info, they have to filter the relevant from the irrelevant, and at the same time they are asking, input the info into a computer screen in a concise and readable form for the dispatcher and responders.

  80. 80
    Steve says:

    As others have said, it is not bullshit at all. It also has nothing to do with monopoly vs. competition vs. government supply. No matter which market structure exists, no one will spend enough money for the network to be able to handle everyone calling all at the same time – AND NO ONE SHOULD. To do this would be a bad misuse of money that would be better used for other things.

    Also, this is nothing new. Wireline telephone networks have always been designed to handle the kind of heavy call volumes that occur fairly often (like peak hours on business days), but not the kind of heavy call volumes that occur only once a year or so. Mother’s Day used to be that kind of peak: Callers would often get fast busy signals. Now, it generally takes a disaster to create that kind of peak. And whether we are considering phone systems, road systems, or anything else — the economy cannot afford to, and does not, put enough resources into the system to handle disaster peaks. If we did put those resources in, those extra resources (and this means many billions of dollars) would be idle most of the time.

  81. 81
    PeakVT says:

    @Dennis SGMM: There’s probably enough spare capacity in the management systems in each cell to implement a somewhat intelligent priority system – shorten calls based on number of requests, don’t drop calls to 911, round-robin queuing, etc.

  82. 82
    replicnt6 says:

    Wait. When did “cell” become “cel”? How did I miss the memo?

  83. 83
    Darcy Pennell says:

    In my town in NC we can text 911, but only Verizon customers can do it. My understanding is they’re trying it out with Verizon before they allow it for all cell phones.

    As for whether we should all shut the hell up about the earthquake because it happens all the time in other regions, all I can say is, get bent! This is an event that could have been dangerous and most people here had never experienced before. It’s only natural that people would get worked up about it.

    It’s all about what you’re used to. We’re expecting a hurricane this weekend and it’s barely newsworthy. The reaction around here ranges from “meh” to “whatever” to “dammit, the store will be crowded.” When I lived up north, one time there was a tropical storm that might have come up that way and it got non-stop news coverage. This was back in the 80s when there was no 24-hour news cycle. The 3 networks cancelled all their daytime programming to spend all day talking about a storm that turned out to be nothing.

  84. 84
    Michael D. says:

    Full disclosure: I work for a wireless company (one that probably didn’t have too many, if any, capacity issues yesterday). I can’t answer question about capacity or network terminology, etc, because I don’t work in that area of the busines. But I would like to ask where your data is to support the following statement:

    All we know is that yesterday proved once again that the device that we have in our hands on the day a disaster strikes—a device that is the only form of communication for a hell of a lot of people—almost certainly won’t work during a disaster.

    Despite this probably unfounded accusation – based on media reports and FCC comments (which will always tilt towards being upset because things didn’t go perfectly), the vast majority of calls went through yesterday. I don’t have the data to back this up, but I think it’s more incumbent on you to prove your accusation than it is for me to prove what I am saying, because what I am saying – that most calls went through – is usually the case. I’m sure I’ll hear more internal stuff over the next few days. Even during a disaster like 9/11, most calls went through because after it happened, all the companies – Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, etc, deployed portable cell sites that could handle tens of thousands of calls simultaneously. Now, if you watch CNN, MSNBC, and the like, you would think almost no calls went through, because the whole “everything was basically working fine” angle is not news and doesn’t keep people glued to their stupid broadcasts.

    As far as capacity goes, I know my company has plenty of it, which is why we rarely get capacity or dropped call complaints. But even those companies that I think are of lesser quality have pretty good networks. and as I said, the vast majority of calls went through.

    Finally, why do the wireless companies have to plan for double or triple capacity when disasters happen so rarely that it wouldn’t make sense? And why are we held to a higher standard than, say, car companies? Shouldn’t they be required to spend tens of billions more to put safety features on their vehicles to cover every contingency? Isn’t it better to charge people $10,000 extra for a car with all those extra features to keep them absolutely safe (and then, when those fail a few times, require $10k more)? Let’s make the price of a $20,000 car $45,000! Let’s double the already expensive price of cell service so that we can double capacity for the rare times we need it. I bet people would LOVE that! But at least the wealthy would have a chance to call the airport to ready their helicopter for take off.

    How about this? What if we stopped starting fucking wars that make other people hate our fucking guts and want to cause man-made disasters here like 9/11 or dirty bombs or anthrax scares or shoe bombs? How about we spend a little money to make bridges and buildings more earthquake resistant? What if we told people that, during a disaster, it’s NOT ok to call your best friend and say “Dude, did you fucking feel that? Kewl? That was awesome!”

    Of course not. Let’s deflect the responsibility and put the burden on wireless companies to spend billions on extra capacity that’s rarely needed!

  85. 85
    Michael D. says:

    PS: And, to the extent that it IS needed, it’s largely because of some stupid shit that we’ve inflicted on ourselves – see wars and shitty infrastructure above.

  86. 86
    ericblair says:

    @Darcy Pennell:

    As for whether we should all shut the hell up about the earthquake because it happens all the time in other regions, all I can say is, get bent! This is an event that could have been dangerous and most people here had never experienced before. It’s only natural that people would get worked up about it.

    Yes, and it also serves as a dry run on what would happen if the shit really hit the fan again. Besides comm problems, the DC area immediately got gridlocked as agencies closed buildings and people decided that that was enough for one day.

    I agree that we can’t plan for absolute maximum load in any of our systems, but we need to think clearly about regulating the minimum necessary surge capacity and emergency service. Without regulation the most profitable thing a public company can do is do the least possible to plan for emergencies and just hope nothing bad happens until senior management cashes out and it’s somebody else’s problem. As pointed out above, the way to handle crises is proper message prioritization, limited by the technology (you can’t trade text capacity for voice or for data, for example).

  87. 87
    Michael D. says:

    Also, we should mandate that the Krogers, Publixs, and A&Ps of America all have enough bread, eggs, and milk when a surprise snowstorm hits.

    MAN, that really pisses me off when they run out!

  88. 88
    Big Baby DougJ says:

    Great post title!

  89. 89
    Xboxershorts says:

    @Villago Delenda Est:

    The answer is the engineers who designed these networks probably built in a great deal of excess just for such a eventuality, based on years of experience. They were, of course, overruled by beancounting MBAs who were eager to “cut costs” and sacrifice quality that can’t be translated into bonuses for them, unlike cost cutting measures to boost stock price and profit.

    I’m one of those engineers. The reality is that as long as it’s just voice, the airwaves alone provided plenty of bandwidth. But, there are factors at play here people almost always ignore.

    1) There are 10’s of thousands of cell towers in the US, building, deploying and maintaining those towers is incredibly MANPOWER intensive.

    How many people do you know that can do this:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C_-7Qp7uzbQ

    Not to damn many.

    Anytime new technology for cellular transmission is developed and released to market, what those men do in that video has to be replicated 10’s of thousands of times to install it.

    Also, too…developing and deploying smarthphone technology happens on a pace at least 10x what deploying of new bandwidth for these towers does.

    And some of these towers are god damned remote and harder than hell to get to.

    How many bandwidth intensive apps are out there for the various brands of smartphone?

    Less than 10 years ago, hooking up a cell tower to a backbone network was usually done with a T1 circuit, a capacity of 1.5Mb/s. Today, most are multiple T1’s or a DS3 (45Mb/s). Only NOW is that backhaul transport being upgraded to optical wavelength.

    Another thing to consider is HOW your phone connects to the cellular network. There are 2 ways, either collision detection or collision avoidance. With collision detection, your handheld device listens for a free segment on the media before transmitting. In collision avoidance, the access device controls when you are allowed to put data on the wire (or radio wave). Normally, these access points can handle hundreds, even thousands, of simultaneous connections per second. But there’s only so many CPU cycles available per second, and even with 3G or 4G bandwidth, there are still hard physical limits to the number of simultaneous connections available. If you exceed the physical limitations of the access device, you have to wait. Period.

    The cellular network is still very young. Hell, when I entered this field in 1981, it was just being started.

    I’m sorry that on the rare occasion it doesn’t meet your expectations. But hey, you are free to not use it.

    Otherwise, if you intend to criticize it, I suggest you take a moment to invest the minimum effort needed to understand it first.

  90. 90
    different church-lady says:

    @Xboxershorts and @Michael D.: Or, what you guys said in pictorial form: http://xkcd.com/277/

  91. 91
    TimmyB says:

    @Steve: Exactly right.

    I remember a pre-cell phone time during the ’70s when it snowed the first time ever in Palm Beach, Florida. You couldn’t dial 3 digits without getting a busy signal because everyone was calling to say “look at the snow outside.”

    This extends to every other utility, including phones. With electricity, why do we get brownouts in the Summer when everyone turns on air conditioning? System overload.

    Here in Los Angeles, when the city restricted lawn watering to three days a week, the City’s water pipes started bursting on watering days. As everyone was watering during those three days, usage increased, and overloaded the water system.

  92. 92
    JK says:

    #82 pretty much says it best.

    Beyond that, I always find these conversations where people start rending their garments over the failure of cell phones to be silly. You occasionally saw the same thing before E911 was created which gave cell phones the ability to send location information along with a 911 call.

    How is it a catastrophe if you call 911 on a cell phone and it doesn’t work (or doesn’t work well), when the alternative is NOT having a way to dial 911 while you’re mobile?

    It’s like blaming a security blanket for its failure to protect you from bad things happening.

  93. 93
    debbie says:

    @ LoudounLib:

    Ah, 911! I got home-invaded a few years ago. Afterwards, when I dialed 911, I got a recorded message asking me to hold on, that their lines were temporarily full. It took maybe 30 seconds to get a human being, but imagine how horrible that would be for someone in immediate physical danger? (I wasn’t.)

  94. 94
    Kathleen says:

    @scav: I believe cell phone networks function over a backbone of land lines in addition to using towers.

  95. 95
    Xboxershorts says:

    @Kathleen:

    I believe cell phone networks function over a backbone of land lines in addition to using towers.
    ReplyR

    This is accurate.

    It’s a manpower issue, not funding, not tech, it’s manpower.

    I’ve averaged 500 hours Overtime/yr for the past decade.
    And I work indoors doing network engineering things..

    Tower climbers, by the way, are predominately unionized.

  96. 96
    fuckwit says:

    Get up, a get-get, a get down!

    That whole album was brilliant.

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