East Coast temblor reveals weakness of cell networks, strength of broadcasting in times of emergency, NAB says

The 5.8 magnitude earthquake that shook major East Coast metro areas, including New York City and Washington, D.C., Aug. 23, once again revealed a fundamental limitation of cell phone networks: handling a tsunami of calls in the wake of emergencies, according to an NAB statement released to the press Aug. 25.

“Cell phone networks clogged after the earthquake this week, leaving thousands of callers stranded without a signal,” said NAB Executive VP Dennis Wharton.

Headlines from various news organizations echoed the concern.

“Quake Exposes Post-9/11 Cracks in Cellphone Coverage, Emergency Response,” trumpeted Fox News.

“Cellphone service falls short,” The Washington Post proclaimed.

When thousands of people across the East Coast reached for their cell phones moments after the shaking stopped, “many got only busy signals on jammed networks,” as The Washington Post reported.

According to Wharton, the clogged networks and the uninterrupted availability of emergency information on over-the-air television draw a sharp contrast between the ability of cell phones and broadcasting to inform the public of potentially life-saving information in times of an emergency.

But more bandwidth for cell phone networks would not unclog the networks, he said.

“In an emergency situation when tens of thousands of people are trying to call simultaneously, the cell phone network as it is currently designed is destined to fail,” Wharton said. “As constructed now, all the spectrum on the planet won't prevent cell phone network disruptions in a crisis situation.”

Wharton pointed to an interview with FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate by CNN Morning anchor Ali Velshi on Aug. 25 to underline the important role local broadcasters play in an emergency.

Responding to a question from Velshi about overloaded phone circuits, Fugate said:
“You know, we’re going to go back to what I think people that got so enamored with their smart phones and stuff forget. It's your local radio and TV stations. Those local broadcasters are going to be giving you the best information, real time, from those local officials out of those press conferences.

“So make sure you got your radio and television … and again cell phones get congested, but we did have some success with people text messaging or using social media. But remember, cell phones themselves in heavy congestion may not be able to get through. And stay off the phones if it is not an emergency, because other people may be trying to call 911. Use text messaging, use land lines, but again local TV and radio are going to probably be one of the best sources of information from those local officials during the crunch time of evacuation.”

Phil Kurz

Phil Kurz is a contributing editor to TV Tech. He has written about TV and video technology for more than 30 years and served as editor of three leading industry magazines. He earned a Bachelor of Journalism and a Master’s Degree in Journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism.