Why Cell Phone Networks Crash During an Emergency

Photo Credit: Marco Gomes via Compfight cc

Maggie Koerth-Baker of BoingBoing interviews Brough Turner, a phone system expert, about why it’s hard to make cell phone calls during an emergency. Turner addresses the mechanics and limitations of cell phone networks and points out that, nostalgia notwithstanding, the pre-cell phone era faced its own technical problems:

Well, say you’d have an earthquake in California. This was for the old Bell system. The national long distance routing has a set of standard, predefined routes and it had network control centers in New Jersey and other places. Things would get overloaded and they would manually intervene by putting access restrictions on new calls coming into the area that was congested. In the 60s, 70s, and 80s they would let through one out of every five call attempts. They were doing that manually and just arbitrarily to reduce congestion.

(HT: The Big Picture)

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  1. James says:

    The technical aspects of why the phone network gets overloaded when lots of people try to make calls at once are… well, glaringly obvious? Like why we have traffic jams and gridlock when lots of people are trying to drive on the same roads at the same time, no?

    What’d be more interesting would be to examine whatever weird quirk of normal* psychology it is that has replaced people’s reactions to an emergency with “Quick, call all our friends on the other side of the country!”

    *Not being normal myself, I find it difficult to comprehend.

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  2. Barru says:

    They don’t “crash”, it’s a complete misuse of the word.

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  3. Allen says:

    You guys should really donate a dollar to disaster relief or something for every page-view this piece got. So everyone who viewed it can feel like we got something out of it.

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  4. Mike B says:

    I miss the Bell System. You got 6 9’s of service with with things like the transistor and the C programming language as side effects. For people that bitch and moan about competition you wouldn’t have a cell phone or anything solid state if it wasn’t for the Bell System monopoly. Government regulation of rates forced them to innovate in normally non-profitable areas like basic physics research.

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