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Bridge Collapse: Why Did Cell Phones Fail?

This week's horrific bridge collapse in Minnesota demonstrated once again that our country's cellular networks -- relentlessly boasted about in TV ads -- are useless during times of emergency. As family members desperately tried to reach loved ones in the frantic aftermath of the structure's crumble, they found themselves unable to connect. The networks were so overloaded with calls, they simply choked. They did the same thing last month when a steam pipe exploded in New York City, which blanketed one Manhattan neighborhood in dirt and debris, and brought back with it flashbacks of 9/11 (another time the cellular networks failed us). It was the same song and dance during Hurricane Katrina.

These failures might have been OK ten years ago when cell phones were still something of a novelty to the average American. But in today's day and age, as we increasingly abandon traditional landlines in favor of mobile handsets, the dependability of these networks is crucial. Failure is unacceptable. Those ads featuring the nerdy "Can you hear me now?" guy are quite frankly insulting.

Sadly, there doesn't seem to be any official solution in the works. There's been no plea from FEMA or mandate from the FCC to the cell networks to have a contingency plan in place during emergencies. And if they're not obligated to spend money on improving their networks, do you think the cellular carriers would ever bother? Of course not.

The answer, it turns out, isn't so far-fetched. It would be relatively easy for providers to implement, and might even make them some money. In an article written in response to Hurricane Katrina a full eight months before the Minneapolis tragedy, scientist and author David Brin proposed an emergency system in which cell providers adopt peer-to-peer technology similar to that used by file-sharing programs on the Internet. Instead of phone calls being routed through cell towers, they bounce from phone to phone until they get where they need to go. Brin also suggests limiting this peer-to-peer system to text messaging in times of emergency. Voice calls eat up a lot of bandwidth and can easily overload a system, whereas text messaging uses packet switching, like the Internet, which breaks messages up into smaller, more manageable pieces before sending them. By circumventing overloaded cell towers and limiting communication to low-bandwidth text messaging, it is possible in times of tragedy for the cell networks to deliver on the promises of coverage and reliability that they make in their ad campaigns.

The peer-to-peer component of Brin's proposal would definitely benefit cell providers when there isn't a state of emergency. By routing voice calls from phone to phone to phone instead of through towers, it would be possible for networks to extend into the further reaches of those regions where cell coverage is still spotty or non-existent. That would certainly result in more customers, and it would definitely make it harder to snicker at the TV when AT&T promises more bars or boasts about fewer dropped calls.

For now, however, this is just an idea put out there for debate on the blogosphere. Until the government compels cellular providers to adopt this or a similar emergency backup system, we're stuck with the same infrastructure that has failed us time and time again. Fortunately, there are a couple of things you can do during the next emergency situation to help you better communicate with loved ones. The first is to try text messaging instead of calling. As we said, text messaging requires much less bandwidth than voice, and in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, was one of the only ways survivors found they could communicate. The other was push-to-talk. In the days following Katrina and the New Orleans levy breaches, Sprint Nextel users found that, though voice calling was down, they were still able to communicate via the push-to-talk walkie-talkie functions of their phones. This is because push-to-talk is not routed through cell towers, but is direct communication between two phones.

For more on the technical how-to behind Brin's proposed emergency system, read his full blog post.

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