Technology Diversification Key to Preserving Communications During Quakes, Experts Say

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The diversification of technologies, backhaul networks, and even equipment suppliers is crucial to ensuring the reliability and resiliency of communications infrastructure during catastrophic natural disasters, such as the recent 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan, industry experts and government officials said May 3 at a forum hosted by the Federal Communications Commission.

Less than two months removed from the devastating quake, the FCC gathered officials from the White House, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Federal Emergency Management Administration together with telecommunications industry experts to provide insight into the impact of earthquakes on essential U.S. communications services.

The earthquake in Japan and the more recent tornados in Alabama have underscored the inherent vulnerability of communications networks--sprawling systems that rely heavily on critical hubs.

Tim Woods, manager of tactical operations support for Cisco Systems Inc., said that this idea of “diversification” is particularly critical for so-called backhaul networks--the part of a wireless network that links cellphone base stations to an operators' core network.

“Being able to have diversity across mediums that are not so dependent on one fiber-optic line is key,” he said.

“Diversity is a real big problem,” added Robert Desiato, director of network disaster recovery for AT&T Inc. “Within the telecom industry, we try to build everything as diverse as possible. We don't want just one line running into a building.”

The implication is that if one line is disengaged or compromised by the effects of a natural disaster, the entire building loses communications capability.

When asked whether the nation's networks can support communications during large-scale natural disasters like a 9.0 earthquake, Desiato noted that the network backbone--which interconnects the actual disparate pieces of the network, providing a path for the exchange of information between LANs, or local area networks--has a “large amount of capacity” that is more than “sufficient.” What concerns Desiato, however, is the so-called “last-mile connection”--the direct local links between households and businesses and the operators' network.

FEMA Administrator: Radio, TV, Smartphones Vital.

FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate also stressed the importance of diversification in disaster preparedness, and the diversification of communications mediums to disseminate information. Radio and television broadcasting communications play just as important a role as cellular and computer-to-computer communications do, he said. And, increasingly, the general public is serving as a resource for FEMA to relay vital information.

Citing recent experiences, Fugate said many developing countries completely have “bypassed” wired infrastructure, relying instead on their mobile phones.

“What fascinated me was the number of people in Haiti using text messaging as a primary method of communication,” he said. “They were texting and going online to get information.”

Which is one of the reasons why FEMA established a dedicated mobile web site,, for survivors to obtain local weather forecasts, contact the Red Cross and “let friends and family know they're safe.”

Historically, one of the priorities for an agency such as FEMA was to deploy telephone banks in disaster areas; now, Fugate says, federal officials must find ways to help survivors charge the batteries in their smartphones.

U.S. Should Consider Quake Warning System, Mesh.

In brief remarks during the forum, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski pointed out how the Japan Meteorological Agency's earthquake early warning system relied on broadband to issue alerts to citizens' cell phones after the first, less harmful earthquake shock wave, providing a short window for people to prepare for the more powerful shock wave that followed. The broadband-based warning system also prompted energy plants, industrial facilities, and transportation services to shut down automatically, and high-speed trains to come to safe stops. The United States currently does not have a comparable earthquake warning system, Genachowski noted.

“The events in Japan demonstrate the importance of reliable and resilient internet-based communications, especially mobile services,” Genachowski said. “Residents of Japan with mobile phones were able to rely on their battery-powered devices to access web-based disaster message boards, Twitter, and social networking sites to report on their status and check for updates regarding family and friends.” The continued ability to use mobile devices to access the internet was in large part due to the redundancy of Japan's wireless mesh network, which can automatically reroute signals over alternate paths if one route is destroyed. Likewise, in Haiti, communications after the earthquake depended on surviving cellular networks, most of which had backup power, Genachowski added.

Prem Ramaswami, a product manager at Google Inc., said that while the internet itself is “resilient” and works as an “avenue to disseminate information” during natural disasters, some of the actual data that must be disseminated to the public, like maps of disaster areas, is not in a simple, standardized format.

Google staff scoured government web sites, retrieved official maps of Japan, and converted them into a standard format so users can see them on their phones.

“Simple, standard, and open can be extremely helpful,” Ramaswami said.

By Paul Barbagallo