A couple of weeks ago, I took some gentle razzing from some quarters for admitting I still have a land line:
As actual voice communication devices, mobile phones still suck. This why I still have a land line. #oldtechthatworks
— Bill Dollins (@billdollins) August 13, 2011
This tweet was the result of yet another dropped call, which is annoying, but the unreliability of cellular networks can be more than just annoying, especially given the fact that they are now the primary communications medium for many people.
Almost ten years ago, on September 11, 2001, I was being evacuated from the building I was in and was trying reach my wife via cell phone. I heard a few garbled words about my parents and our dog before the line went dead. The mobile phone network was down for quite a while and my old analog cell phone was a paperweight during that time. We met up at my parents house later and she had our son and dog with her.
I went on to spend the next several years closely involved with critical infrastructure protection efforts and, specifically, the application of geospatial tools to those efforts. A lot of time, effort and money has been invested to make sure infrastructure works better in such situations.
Flash forward to yesterday’s earthquake in Virginia. As the earthquake hit, we went outside. I pulled out my cell phone to call my wife and got nothing. Simultaneously, everyone in the parking lot with me started noting that they couldn’t get a call through. Ten years later and I was standing at square one, holding a paperweight. I could, however, use my data plan to get to Twitter and Facebook. I don’t for a moment imagine that data services are more stable. Instead, I suspect that the fact that I could use data services is more of an indication of how few people actually use smartphones or data plans.
The earthquake was relatively mild (although such distinctions are different in the East for a number of reasons) and I went back inside after 10 minutes, where I was able to communicate with my family and others via Facebook, Twitter and, yes, land line. It was an hour before I could make a call on my mobile (I have Verizon but AT&T users were also having trouble). So, until there are significant changes, this will remain a fixture in my house:
I am certain that government and emergency responders had access to the communications they required but it’s amazing to think that the most reliable forms of communication available to citizens at large may be two free social media networks that didn’t exist ten years ago and a form of technology that’s over a century old.