Following quake, cellular service buried under avalanche of users

Tina Nguyen Contributor

After the 5.9 magnitude earthquake rocked the Eastern Seaboard, millions of people immediately took to their cellphones to call, text, tweet or look for breaking news. And just as immediately, they found themselves frustrated by wireless networks that were completely congested.

The sudden, heavy volume of callers trying to access cellular networks overwhelmed wireless carriers across the country. For a brief but crucial period of time, the only available communication was through alternative modes: landline, Internet and mobile data — mobile data was also briefly unavailable to many.

Though none of the major networks reported any network damage from the earthquake, they and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) all encouraged consumers to stay off wireless networks for the duration of the quake’s aftermath. “We request that members of the public use email or text messages if possible to communicate for the next few hours, except in cases of emergency, so that emergency officials can continue to receive and respond to urgent calls,” said Rachel Racusen, a spokeswoman from the agency.

This prompted Dennis Wharton, vice president for communications at the National Association of Broadcasters, to downplay the digital spectrum as a means of emergency communications. “Policymakers debating spectrum policy ought to take note that the one reliable communications service during today’s earthquake was the original wireless technology — free and local broadcasting. (RELATED: D.C. monuments, museums closed; no major structural damage reported)

“It’s easy to get dazzled by iPads and Smartphones, but all the spectrum in the world won’t ensure reliability of the ‘one-to-one’ cellphone network architecture during an emergency. When there’s a crisis, it’s hard to replicate the reliability of the ‘one-to-everyone’ local radio and TV broadcast signal.”

Landlines appeared to have reliable connectivity following the earthquake, as well as broadband access to social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter, which users quickly adopted to let their loved ones know they were all right.

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