Earthquakes, Floods, and Pestilence: Life in the Northeast
Among the lessons: communications networks truly are critical in these emergencies; and people have adopted the new options and will include them in their list of choices in difficult times.
We've had quite a week of it here in the Northeast starting with a 5.8 magnitude earthquake that hit last Tuesday, followed by the arrival of tropical storm Irene Sunday morning, and now those of us who are heading out to clean up (I live on the South Shore of Long Island and was part of the "greeting committee" for Irene) are finding what the effect of lots of standing water followed by days of sunshine will be on the mosquito population. My family came out unscathed, but there was a foot of water in the street in front of my house, something I had not seen in the 25-years we've lived here--we actually moved in a week after Hurricane Gloria struck in November 1985.
My interest in all of this is what we learned about our communications networks, both wired and wireless as well as broadcast. The picture is mixed, but it does hold some lessons for the future.
The Earthquake: We don't get many earthquakes in our part of the country, and when we do get one, most people won't even feel it. However, a 5.8 gives you a good shaking, and the phone lines lit up. The cellular network in our suburban town flooded immediately, so I can't imagine what it was like in Manhattan. A few minutes after the quake, I found I couldn't get out on my cable phone line, though the Verizon line worked fine. In any case there was no apparent damage to the systems, so it was a temporary problem of congestion. The big discovery was that wireless SMS and BlackBerry Messenger (which work on cellular signaling channels and cellular data service respectively) chugged along just fine.
The Storm: There was plenty of advance warning with the storm (though the actual track was a matter of conjecture until the trees starting blowing down), and plenty of time for preparation. New York's Mayor Bloomberg took the unprecedented step of closing the city's public transportation system including the buses and all-important subways as well as the commuter rail lines in and out of the city. There have been some complaints that the city over-reacted, however while the worst-case scenario didn't play out, the long-term damage to equipment that could have occurred probably justified the extra caution.
The other extreme measure was ordering the evacuation of low-lying coastal areas including mine; we were actually upstate for a wedding when the storm hit, but in any event, most of my neighbors stayed put.
Both cellular and wired networks performed quite well throughout (we were calling all of our friends to see what was going on back home), and with the exception of the expected damage to overhead wires and water problems with underground equipment, things seemed to hum right along. Unlike the earthquake, which occasioned an immediate spike in calling, the storm business played out over Friday, Saturday, and Sunday so there was plenty of time for everyone to talk.
Lessons Going Forward
What had me thinking about the role of networks through all of this is a report I'd read from the Federal Communications Commission's Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) dated June 29 of this year. The basic recommendation is that the agency begin planning for the end of the PSTN and the migration to all broadband VoIP services with a target date is 2018. The fundamental problem they identify is, "As the number of subscribers on the PSTN falls, the cost per remaining customer increases and the overall burden of maintaining the PSTN becomes untenable."
Among the findings supporting this move are:
* By 2014, the United States will have fewer than 42 million access lines
* Access line losses were nearly 6.6 million between 2Q09 and 2Q10, a drop of 7.3%.
* By 2014 US consumers will have 31.6 million VoIP lines, accounting for 42.5% of all U.S. access lines.
* Fixed lines continue to decline; mobile is the preferred choice for voice communication.
* More than 25% of U.S. consumers aged 18 or older have already given up their voice landline for voice wirelessonly service.
Some of those findings are a little hard to fathom. The CIA's World Factbook puts the total number of wired telephone lines in the US at 141 million; do they really think that can drop by 100 million lines (70%) in three years? The National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) claims the cable companies have 24.4 million cable phone lines in service, so "31.6 million VoIP lines" by 2014 is quite realistic. The move to mobile is clearly evident as there are currently 303 million mobile lines in service.
Gary Audin took an extended look at the issues involved in ending the PSTN in a lengthy article last year. Gary's piece was triggered by a comment submitted to the FCC by AT&T looking to "sunset" the PSTN and transition to broadband (read "VoIP-based") telephony.