Availability of Electronic Communication Networks When We Need Them

This past week, I was on vacation, first at Martha’s Vineyard and then in Mashpee on Cape Cod.  I have an I-Phone, which means that I have ATT cellular phone service, as was the case with my wife, my sister-in-law and brother-in-law, whom we visited on Martha’s Vineyard, and many of their other visitors.  Additionally, I rented a home that had all cordless phones.  The owners, whom we met Saturday morning, July 10, before leaving had Sprint cellular phones.

The telephone and Internet service were so bad for the eight days we were away that we were effectively cut off from communicating with others except for very brief periods when we could find a signal at a handful of locations.  Moreover, when there were power outages because of weather and horrific heat, we also were unable to use the landline phones in the rented house or the wired Internet service the owners had provided us.

My purpose for telling this story is not to complain about Internet or cell phone service, but to point out the vulnerability we face in our modern, high-tech society.  People make the faulty assumption that paper-based communications, TV and radio communications, and face-to-face communications are less necessary and can even be allowed to deteriorate because we have electronic communications available.  The cover story in the July 3-9 issues of The Economist, entitled “Cyberwar: the threat from the Internet” highlights only one of the many risks associated with our increasing dependence on the Internet, the vulnerability of the Internet infrastructure to cyber-warfare tactics.

After the events on September 2001, cell phone service, as well as landline telephone communication became useless because the demand quickly overtook the supply.  ATT has created a similar ongoing problem by its success in marketing Iphones: it has insufficient capacity to address the huge increase in system demand for data downloads.  The GAO issued a report in October, 2009, which found that, in the event of a pandemic, and a quarantining of  a significant part of the working and school-age population, the Internet would break down, especially in residential areas, largely because school children staying at home would overload the system downloading YouTube videos and accessing Facebook pages.

There are four critical actions the federal government needs to take:

  • It needs the power to shut down recreational uses of the Internet in times of national emergency, especially recreational uses that consume a huge amount of bandwidth.  Amtrak already precludes the use of YouTube when it provides Wi-Fi services on its Acela trains.  This is a simple example of what needs to happen everywhere during emergencies.
  • If we are to become much more dependent on wireless Internet services for uses like having electronic health records on cell phones, we need to make it far easier and less expensive for common carriers like ATT, Sprint, Verizon, and T-Mobile to build cell towers.  Too many communities have a “not in my backyard” mindset that significantly reduces cell phone coverage.  This is actually what was a major part of the problem in Cape Cod: there are very few cell towers relative to the demand across Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard.  There are many advocacy groups who think that cell towers cause cancer in surrounding populations or simply depress property values.  There is no credible evidence to support the cancer fears, and the property values argument goes out the window if cells are essentially located in every community. Today, cells can be built in such a way that they are not visible to anyone who does not already know they are in place.
  • Carriers have to be persuaded to charge for data usage.  The notion that a person who accesses billions of gigabytes of data by playing YouTube videos on a cell phone should pay the same fee as someone who uses the cell phone solely for low-bandwidth-consuming voice conversations is crazy.  In fact, if we believe that having real-time universal access to wireless communications is critical for national security, public health emergencies, and effective interstate commerce, the government may have to require the carriers, by law, to eliminate pricing systems that invite overload, and prevent wireless systems from being broadly used. We have a difficult time changing to usage-based pricing when something has been priced at either a fixed amount or given away, but our collective wellbeing depends on having the Internet shared in a thoughtful way.
  • The public needs to be educated to the fact that the Internet does not contain unlimited capacity everywhere.  This is a myth propagated by advocates of electronic communication.  Ironically, when former Vice President Gore referred to the “information superhighway” in the 1990’s, he was being more accurate than he realized.  Superhighways are almost always overloaded, because they invite more people to drive than the available capacity can allow.  Bandwidth, especially wireless bandwidth that depends on the building of cells in residential areas, cannot stay apace with bandwidth-hungry uses of the Internet that result from downloading or viewing of color and sound intensive videos.  The Internet is like the proverbial commons in the center of a rural town: the more cows that graze on the commons, the more quickly the grass that provides nutrition for the cows gets used up.

People sometimes forget that the concept of the Internet was invented by the Defense Department in the 1960’s to protect us from the consequences of having our traditional landline phone systems incapacitated in the event of a war.  We have to get back to basics and protect both our wireless communications and wired Internet systems for everyone’s benefit.

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