Cell Towers Thrive During Hurricane Harvey in Comparison to Katrina

According to the FCC, four percent of the estimated 7,800 cell towers in Harvey’s path were wiped out compared to over 1,000 cell sites incapacitated by Katrina.
Published: September 1, 2017

Communications networks have mostly withstood the onslaught from Hurricane Harvey and, by comparison, have performed considerably better than during Hurricane Katrina’s devastation in 2005, according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Although connectivity was nearly lost in Rockport, Texas, which was hit hardest by the storm, FCC reports only 4 percent of the 7,804 cell sites in Harvey’s path were wiped out, affecting 148,565 people. By contrast, more than 1,000 cell sites were knocked out during Katrina, preventing millions of calls from going through, according to a post-Katrina FCC report.

The emergency 911 system in Texas has been severely burdened with calls, but “those calls are going through,” Adm. Jamie Barnett, former chief of public safety and homeland security at the FCC, told Wired magazine. “By and large we’re hearing that the cellular networks stood up. That means there’s been some learning.”

Cellular service especially becomes crucial during times of disaster as victims use smartphones to send text messages and communicate via Twitter and Facebook about their needs and their whereabouts. As well, disaster preparedness has become a critical component of cellular networks. Companies such as Verizon and AT&T deploy mobile cell sites on light trucks and are now experimenting with drone technology to both survey damage to their infrastructure and beam LTE service to areas that remain under flood waters.

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As Wired reported, Hurricane Harvey was slow-moving enough that carriers such as Verizon, Sprint and AT&T had time to pre-arrange fuel delivery for their cell sites’ backup generators and ready their mobile cell units to be deployed into hard-hit areas. AT&T has deployed seven portable cell sites, two charging stations, and an emergency communications vehicle to the affected areas.

Texas’s 911 system has also progressed since the days of Katrina, Trey Forgety director of government affairs at the National Emergency Number Association, 911’s official professional organization, told Wired.

Shortly after Katrina, state and local governments began assembling lists of qualified telecommunications workers called Telecommunicator Emergency Response Teams who can fill in for 911 dispatchers. “When all the people who work in your call center have houses that are flooded, they’re in trouble themselves,” says Forgety. “These are trained go-teams of people that can go into the affected area and start handling calls for the folks who normally would do that.”

The systems, however, are not without glitches. During the height of Hurricane Harvey, some callers could not reach 911, either because of endless hold times or busy signals. That’s partly because the United States has partitioned its emergency response system, based on legacy wired phone networks that can only direct calls from one physical location to a single call center, according to Wired. To offload excess call capacity to another call center — as is common practice in parts of Europe — would be costly and require rewiring the system. Even if there were a way to handle the immense call volume, there would still be a shortage of first responders.

“I don’t think you’re ever going to be able to respond to really millions of people who are in distress or danger right at the same minute,” says Barnett.

Carriers Have Opposed Modernization

For all of their investments in hardening their cellular networks, mobile carriers have opposed efforts to modernize other parts of the emergency-response system, according to Wired. As Recode reported, AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile have lobbied against efforts by the FCC to change text-based emergency alert systems, so they could provide more useful information to more targeted segments of the population.

Other promising innovations also face roadblocks. Mesh networks, for example, are decentralized networks that enable one device to communicate with another nearby device, which communicates to a third device, creating a daisy chain of connectivity that, in theory, could provide an entire region or neighborhood with cell signal.

There were well-meaning individuals who erected such mesh networks in places like Red Hook, a borough of Brooklyn, after Hurricane Sandy. But in order for mesh networks to functions as widespread substitutes for failed cellular infrastructure, smartphone manufacturers would need to embed that capability into their phones, which they have, so far, been unwilling to do.

“They see it as a feature that’d only be used once in awhile and is not a big money maker,” Jeff Robble, a senior software systems engineer at Mitre, a research and development non-profit, told Wired.

The above article originally ran in Campus Safety’s sister publication Security Sales & Integration.

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