Mark Goldberg


Resilient, robust public safety networks

Hurricane Harvey has triggered some discussion about the best way to configure public safety broadband networks.

An article by Jon Brodkin in Ars Technica observed that “Tropical Storm Harvey takes out 911 centers, cell towers, and cable networks“, triggering tweets that suggested that this proves that public safety broadband networks must be built to a higher reliability standard than those for commercial networks.

I am not as convinced that Hurricane Harvey proves the need to build a stand alone public safety network engineered to different reliability standards. Not only were some 9-1-1 centers knocked out by the storm, as the Ars Technica article described, but first response systems were also disabled:

The cause was visible across the county: Tall structures, trees and signs were folded with ease by the 130-mile-per-hour winds that enclosed the eye of the storm.

That included the signal tower outside the centrally located Rockport Police Department.

Emergency radio channels were unavailable, and first responders were limited to “shortwave radios that span only a couple miles,” said Matt Jamison, a volunteer firefighter from Fulton.

“There’s a lot of people using that one channel, and it’s not really effective when you’re trying to do a large-scale search-and-rescue (operation),” Jamison said.

Comedian Ron White sums it up nicely when he describes the experience of trying to survive hurricane force winds. It isn’t THAT the wind is blowing 130 MPH; it is WHAT the wind is blowing.

With a back-to-school theme in mind, there are three R’s to keep in mind as we architect a national public safety network solution: resilience, robustness and reliability.

Can we realistically expect a new private public safety network to be more resilient, more robust, more reliable or for that matter, more ubiquitous than having access to multiple public commercial networks? Would first response applications achieve greater reliability by having the ability to simultaneously connect to diverse networks operating on different towers and across different frequency bands?

There are lessons to be learned from Hurricane Harvey for communications networks professionals. The answer to increased network reliability might be found in smarter, multi-carrier user equipment.

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