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Super storms draw attention to critical communications

The US Territory of Puerto Rico was recently hit by the strongest storm in almost 90 years. Knocking out the island’s electricity grid, 90 percent of cell phone sites stopped working, according to the US Federal Communications Commission. The recent string of monster storms in North America has drawn attention to the importance of critical communications and promoting public safety.

In the space of two months (August and September 2017), the southern United States and Caribbean region were slammed by three mega storms: Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma and the most recent Hurricane Maria. Harvey caused at least 75 confirmed deaths; 1 in Guyana, and 74 in the US. As of September 27, Irma caused at least 124 deaths; while as of October 1 Maria caused at least 68 deaths.

Still recovering from Irma two weeks prior, approximately 80,000 people in Puerto Rico were left without power after Maria hit. Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) had struggled with increasing debt, reaching $9 billion even before the hurricanes, prompting them to file for bankruptcy. The island’s aging infrastructure left it vulnerable to damage from the storms. Consequently, mobile coverage was cut off.

When Maria finally subsided, in Puerto Rico’s capital, San Juan, cars were reportedly pulling up on the side of roads with occupants emerging holding their cell phones up in the air in search of network coverage. For miles, cell phones displayed a frustrating “No Service” message. This is in stark contrast to the US states of Texas and Florida that had cell service restored almost completely in storm-affected areas a week after Harvey and Irma hit.

The aftermath of the storms has drawn fresh attention to the importance of critical communications. Following the storms, the United States Federal Communications Commission urged Apple to activate the FM (frequency modulation) chips that are in iPhones to promote public safety.

Commission Chairman Ajit Pai released a statement applauding those companies that have “done the right thing” by activating FM chips in their phones in light of natural disasters hammering the country. “In recent years, I have repeatedly called on the wireless industry to activate the FM chips that are already installed in almost all smartphones in the United States,” said Mr. Pai.

He highlighted the importance of FM chips during natural disasters. When wireless networks go down during a disaster, smartphones with activated FM chips can allow people to get vital access to important information without an internet connection. “Apple is the one major phone manufacturer that has resisted doing so,” said Mr. Pai. “But I hope the company will reconsider its position, given the devastation wrought by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria.”

According to the FCC, 89.3 percent of cell sites were out of service after Maria. All counties in Puerto Rico, except San Juan, had greater than 75 percent of their cell sites out of service. 29 out of the 78 counties in Puerto Rico had 100 percent of their cell sites out of service. On the US Virgin Islands, 69.8 percent of cell sites were out of service.

Since there were widespread power outages in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, the FCC received reports that large percentages of consumers were left without either cable services or wireline service (one company reported that 100 percent of its consumers were left out of service due to lack of commercial power).

In one of the few places that had connectivity on Puerto Rico, the Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel & Casino, tourists reportedly overwhelmed the lobby to use the working cell service and Wi-Fi to connect with the outside world. With a cell phone penetration rate of nearly 100 percent, according to government data, Puerto Ricans have been heavily impacted by the lack of network services on the island.

Confidence in connectivity

Puerto Rico has five main mobile operators: AT&T, T-Mobile, Claro, Sprint and Open Mobile. Connectivity provided by operators is the backbone of relief efforts today. AT&T and Sprint both dispatched teams to restore coverage to the island. The companies also waived certain fees for customers to establish a way for people to contact their families and friends.

The electric grid fallout presented one of the biggest challenges to restoring connectivity to the island. “Power is essential to restoring wireless and wireline communications. Given the breadth of power outages across the islands, we’re deploying portable generators as quickly as allowed,” AT&T said.

Social media giant Facebook also pledged support for Puerto Rico. CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced $1.5 million in aid to organizations assisting in the island’s recovery from Maria, together with direct assistance from Facebook’s connectivity team in an effort to get people back online. The company also said it would donate Facebook ad space to share critical information with Puerto Rican users.

Facebook’s connectivity team previously came under the spotlight for ambitious technology initiatives like the Aquila drone, a high-altitude solar-powered aircraft designed to connect remote areas to the internet. Facebook is pushing forward with the Aquila program's progress to help bring the world closer together through connectivity.

“Communication is critical during a disaster,” Zuckerberg said in a post after Hurricane Maria. “With 90 percent of cell towers on the island [Puerto Rico] out of service, people can't get in touch with their loved ones -- and it's harder for rescue workers to coordinate relief efforts.”

Recovery efforts have suffered in Puerto Rico as a result of its cell network outage. Utilizing social media proved immensely effective after fallout from Harvey in Texas, as people could publish posts that were quickly relayed to rescuers. Due to the lack of connectivity on Puerto Rico, in some remote areas people resorted to painting “Help” signs on roads and buildings, hoping that relief efforts would reach them.

The public safety community has long called for mobile broadband to support its mission to save lives. With the adoption of LTE mobile broadband technology, public safety networks can benefit from the advantages of fast and reliable broadband data and real-time video services, opening up new communications possibilities for rescue missions and disaster recovery situations.

In an effort to make mission-critical mobile broadband a reality, Nokia, for example, has a dedicated comprehensive technology and services portfolio called ViTrust. The portfolio includes rapidly deployable solutions for emergency and disaster recovery situations to establish coverage in remote areas, among other features.

The Finnish company recently expanded the portfolio with new services to help first responders take advantage of reliable and secure high-performance applications on their public safety devices. The services provide trouble-free continuity of operations for public safety agencies across a multi-vendor, multi-technology mission critical communications environment.

‘Care for public safety’, for instance, is a service Nokia introduced to ensure that the most demanding communications needs to public safety organizations are fulfilled. The company says it ensures that new network functionality and services interworking with multivendor LTE networks are available from day one.

One European operator is already using this service and seeing the benefits of reduced operational downtime risks, according to Nokia, with service levels stabilizing faster than before and fulfilling public safety requirements.

“The success of moving to broadband-based critical communications requires deep technological and operational expertise,” said Asad Rizvi, head of Nokia's global business development in Global Services. “Nokia has both, from our long history of working with agencies to our global service expertise in broadband.”

The public safety LTE market is expected to be valued at US$3,091.3 million by 2023, according to new market research published by MarketsandMarkets, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 25.7 percent from US$782.9 million in 2017. The factors that are driving the growth of this market, according to the report, are the rising demand for unmanned operations and remote surveillances, and elimination of connectivity issues between networks.