Can Wireless Networks Be More Consistently Reliable?

Should we consider more ways to increase the resiliency of cellular networks in the wake of another tragedy that showed how easily they can get overloaded? That's the question researcher Anthony Townsend asked in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings in his provocative piece for The Atlantic: The Shame of Boston's Wireless Woes. Townsend points out that despite initial Associated Press reports -- later withdrawn -- that government officials had requested a communications blackout, it turned out that the networks had simply gotten too congested. Verizon Wireless advised people to stick to texts and emails to free up bandwidth for emergency calls as it moved to bolster capacity in the Copley Square area. (See Verizon Shows Off Its Hurricane Force for more on the mobile cells.) It is a hardly a surprise that the networks suffered from congestion. It happened after 9/11 and other disasters. Hell, if you've been to a massive trade show like CES, you've probably experienced the phenomenon yourself. Townsend also touches on the continued need for more backup options for carrier cell towers. This is something that came to the fore after Hurricane Sandy, as I've written. (See Sandy: The Case for Better Cell Site Backup?) When more than one-third of Americans are solely connected via wireless, according to the CDC, it's time to start taking reliable cellular uptime seriously; that's the crux of Townsend's argument.
    The time to stop treating our cellular networks as an afterthought in preparedness, as expendable casualties during crises, is long overdue. In fact, they are the key to getting first responders to where they need to be, and an essential tool for resilient responses by citizens in the hours and days after a major disaster. The cellular industry has enjoyed the benefits (and profits) of access to public radio spectrum. With that access now comes enormous responsibility. We can't afford a communications infrastructure that works only when we don't really need it.
Obviously this can't happen overnight. So clearly, education from the carriers about the best way to use phones in an emergency is the first measure that should happen. If you don't need to make a 911 call but want to reassure family and friends that you're OK, then text messages should be the first choice. 2G and 3G small cells would also be a way to increase network call capacity without adding to the macro networks. Adding more density in city centers seems like an obvious choice in this scenario. But the tiny radios also bring their own deployment, management and interference issues to the network. Self-optimizing network (SON) technology may also be useful in helping the network react more fluidly to massive traffic on a particular cell. In theory, SON technology can detect when too many users are connected to a single tower and tell nearby towers to expand their footprints to cover some of the users in the overloaded area. It can also detect when a site is down and reroute users to the next-best cell. Publicly, however, only AT&T Inc. has said that it is rolling out SON technology across its network. (See Cisco to Buy AT&T's Favorite SON Startup.) Wireless is a shared resource, so there will always be limitations. It does seem, however, that we are approaching a time when carriers will be able to more easily monitor network performance, add capacity and better manage unforeseen traffic flows on the network. Is that likely to happen very quickly? I doubt it. In fact, I think extra congestion-fighting measures in the cellular network are more likely to be driven by the fact that handling more and more mobile data traffic is improving carrier revenues now, rather than by any specific focus on voice calls. — Dan Jones, Site Editor, Light Reading Mobile

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