This piece was originally published in the 2015 Super Mobility Week Official Show Daily.

Mobile devices are indispensable in 2015. Indeed, since the first cell phone call was made in 1973, the meteoric rise of wireless communications has driven cellular devices into even the most reluctant hands. 

But as families and professionals have dropped landlines in droves and become increasingly dependent on a wireless future - and as wireless networks have become more reliable and fostered a sense of security - it seems few laypeople have thought to question the technology’s touted infallibility.

So what happens when the most prevalent medium of communication falters?

Hurricane Sandy

In late October 2012, the eastern seaboard was pummeled by Hurricane Sandy, a massive weather system with a tropical storm-force wind field 932 miles in diameter. The hurricane, driven to superstorm conditions when it combined with a cold front, battered residents from Florida to Maine with high winds, coastal and inland flooding and even blizzard conditions.

Residents in parts of Maryland were buried in up to two feet of snow while record tides approaching 14 feet swept into Lower Manhattan, leaving 8.6 million people across 16 states without power. 

For many, wireless communications were also crippled, if only temporarily. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), nearly a quarter of cell phone towers were knocked out of service by the storm, with many of the remainder left to function on fuel-powered generators. Further disruptions to the networks were caused by flooding in Manhattan that submerged a major communications node in four feet of water and temporarily shut down Verizon’s phone and Internet service.

In a desperate effort to keep their customers connected, AT&T and T-Mobile joined forces to enable cross-carrier roaming between their networks. Facilitated by similarities in their underlying network standards, the partnership allowed customers in heavily impacted areas in New York and New Jersey to have their calls carried by whichever network was most operational in their area.

But even cell phone users who had steady service following the storm were confounded by a lack of electricity that lasted for up to several weeks and prevented them from charging their power-drained devices.

As residents in areas with electricity strung extension cords and power strips out of their windows for communal charging, Verizon leapt into the fray with the deployment of Wireless Emergency Communication Centers to the hard-hit areas of Staten Island, Monmouth University and Toms River,

New Jersey. The centers, which also included stores-on-wheels, offered the public a place to charge their devices and provided free domestic calls to local residents.

Sprint, which faced challenges in obtaining commercial power, backhaul connections and safe access to cell sites to restore service to the nearly 20 percent of customers in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut who lost service, waived charges for customers with voice, text and data overages, as well as roaming and call forwarding fees for the entire month following the storm. 

While the response from the four major carriers was swift and impressive, the storm revealed major vulnerabilities in network infrastructure and connectivity that have the potential to worsen as weather patterns continue to change and intensify.

According to figures from The Weather Channel, Sandy was just one of a string of large weather events to leave customers without electricity. In June of 2012, 4.25 million electric customers were left without power after a string of strong windstorms – also known as a derecho – swept across the Mid-Atlantic region. In August 2011, 9.3 million people lost power in the wake of Hurricane Irene and another 4.3 million East Coast customers lost power in a massive October snowstorm the same year.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, a federal task force formed by the president and chaired by Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Shaun Donovan recommended a recovery strategy that would “ensure the region is rebuilt in a way that makes it more resilient – that is, better able to withstand future storms and other risks posed by a changing climate.” The report further specified that infrastructure should be “hardened” to help make electricity and cell phone service more resilient and ensure that communication abilities remain available during and following a major weather event.

But weather events aren’t the only thing that can wreak havoc on cellular communications. On the West Coast, mobile users face an entirely different threat from massive earthquakes which might topple not only buildings, but also cell towers. And according to a recent unnerving article in The New Yorker, the Cascadia region is well overdue for a catastrophic 9.0 ‘quake.

Even manmade disasters, such as the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, have been known to overwhelm networks in the past, leaving survivors with only radio silence as they try to reach loved ones.

Preparing for disaster

With the knowledge of what may lie ahead, wireless carriers and government bodies across the country have begun to put measures in place to ensure continued connectivity even at the worst of times.

AT&T Director of Emergency Management, Preparedness and Response Steve Poupos said much of a network’s resiliency comes from the aforementioned “hardened” infrastructure.

“Our first line of defense is a hardened, strong network,” Poupos said. “When our local network teams build cell sites in disaster-prone areas, all cell sites are built to meet or exceed state structural standards. Regular analysis is conducted to help ensure our cell sites can withstand earthquake loads, wind, ice, and other environmental factors and based on analysis by professional engineers, upgrades or modifications are completed to maintain safe, reliable tower capacity and meet or exceed all building codes.”

At Sprint, a company spokeswoman said several billion dollars were spent on new cell site equipment, batteries and a greater fiber backhaul in coastal states from Texas to Maine between 2012 and 2014. The carrier also reported placing hundreds of new portable generators in coastal areas since 2013.

However, because no network is immune to outages carriers have back-up power sources at key sites, as well as mobile units that can deploy to restore communications if outages do occur.

During Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, for example, Poupos said AT&T sent out satellite cells on light trucks (SatCOLTS), a satellite cell on wheels (COW), emergency communications vehicles (ECV), an emergency communications portable (ECP) and a phone charging trailer to restore communications in some of the most heavily impacted areas in New York and New Jersey. The last active SatCOLT, Poupos said, remained at Manhattan Beach for nearly two months, until December 2012.

In addition to having the right equipment, both AT&T and Sprint reported that their employees conduct regular emergency preparation drills to ensure their response is well rehearsed. 

“We conduct three to four Network Disaster Recovery (NDR) exercises per year to make sure our network and employees are ready to respond during a real disaster,” Poupos said. “NDR exercises include transporting network recovery equipment to various locations across the country and world, setting up key NDR equipment and running drills as if they were a real-life disaster scenario. Since its inception, our NDR team has deployed emergency network equipment for more than 70 events, including 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, Super Storm Sandy, The Moore Oklahoma Tornado, and most recently for the rash of wildfires currently affecting the Pacific Northwest region.” 

But if commercial service does go down for any amount of time, a Sprint spokeswoman said backup communication channels are still available to emergency responders. 

“In the event that commercial wireless networks go out of service, we provide Wi-Fi calling for first responders,” the Sprint representative said. “We also offer Wireless Priority Service access to key public sector customers which puts them at the front of the line in making their wireless connection, much as flashing lights on an ambulance help move public safety through traffic on the road.”

All three carriers also said they issue emergency communication tips to their customers year round and ahead of storms.

Verizon did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

But some locales aren’t leaving all the preparation solely in the hands of carriers. In May 2015, the Los Angeles City Council unanimously voted to protect an “integral part of our society” in passing a measure mandating that future cell towers are constructed using the same seismic protection standards as public safety buildings or emergency shelters. The rules don’t apply to existing towers, which are only required to remain standing through an earthquake but not functioning.

On the federal level, the FCC has adopted several rules to ensure consumer safety in the event of a disaster and is in the process of considering more.

As a follow up to the 2012 derecho, the FCC passed rules in December 2013 to improve 911 communications networks across the country by “requiring 911 service providers – generally, the wireline phone companies that route both wireline and wireless calls to 911 call centers – to take reasonable measures to provide reliable and resilient 911 service, as evidenced by an annual certification.

The commission took further action on 911 services in August 2014, when it passed rules requiring all text messaging providers to enable texts to 911 in emergency situations by the end of that year. The move, according to a commission press release, was passed to “make text-to-911 more uniformly available and keep pace with how Americans communicate,” but was also heralded as a useful service for those who have hearing or speech issues.

A third 911 ruling came in January of this year, when the FCC updated its Enhanced 911 rules in response to the increase of 911 calls placed using cell phones. The ruling included requirements for wireless providers to meet certain indoor location accuracy benchmarks for both horizontal and vertical location measures to help first responders find callers, especially those in multi-story buildings.

In August of this year, the FCC also adopted rules that require providers of modern home voice services to make backup power sources for emergency situations available to consumers who would like to purchase them. In the short term, providers are required to offer a solution that provides eight hours of standby backup power to consumers at the point of sale. Within three years, providers must also offer an option capable of providing 24 hours of standby power. The rules, however, do not require consumers to purchase the reserve power. 

The commission is also currently considering two measures that would preserve the reliability of 911 calls as technology evolves away from landlines and improve wireless network reliability, respectively.

The latter, according to a September 2013 press release, would “improve wireless network reliability during disasters by requiring wireless service providers to publicly disclose the percentage of cell sites within their networks that are operational during and immediately after disasters.” According to the commission, doing so would “encourage competition in the wireless industry to improve network reliability” by “providing consumers with a yardstick for comparing wireless performance in emergencies,” effectively letting the concerns of the market dictate the demand and pace of reliability improvements.

Both proceedings are still pending.

Like the carriers, both the FCC and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) put out helpful tips for consumers to communicate in disaster situations.

Are we ready?

According to Recon Analytics founder and analyst Roger Entner, wireless networks these days utilize a fairly reliable infrastructure. 

“The towers themselves are probably the most resilient part and the most quickly replaced,” he explained. “So in the path of a category four or five strength hurricane, the network will get knocked out, but only for hours or maybe for a day or two. The network should be relatively quick to recover as it did with Sandy.

“Where it gets complicated is the backbone,” Entner continued. “Because if the backbone gets knocked out, it’s very difficult to get it back up and running. And the killer with the hurricanes is not necessarily the wind, it’s the water and that’s usually going after the backbone, the fiber in the ground.”

One area Entner pointed to as a possibility for continued improvement is the move toward smaller cell rings to minimize the effects of outages. 

“The carriers are moving toward smaller and smaller fiber rings,” Entner said. “For a lot of carriers, twelve sites in a ring was standard but now they’re moving down to around six. Now, that costs more money, but it improves reliability.”

Overall though, Entner said the carrier’s disaster preparations thus far have struck a good balance between affordability and redundancy in a real world setting.

“Can they do a better job? Yes, but we’re not living in an unlimited resource world,” Entner said. “When we look at it in the big picture, natural disasters are relatively rare events in a given location. You can make everything waterproof (in case of a hurricane) but people are already complaining about high bills. Are you willing to pay double to be prepared for an earthquake that happens maybe once in a lifetime?”