The Wireless Background

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The Feature on 23 August 2003

In the Great Blackout of 2003, it was the landlines that worked, and the cell phones that failed.

I’m pretty good in a disaster. I spent a couple of years in the Boy Scouts (their motto is “be prepared”) and I’ve always had a mind prone to worst-case scenario planning for everything from nuclear disaster to the fabled Y2K bug. I suppose I take perverse delight in thinking about the situations portrayed in movies like “28 Days Later,” where your wits and ability to think ten steps ahead keep you from getting eaten by zombies.

So while I was delighted to have a fully charged cell phone with me as I watched the World Trade towers fall on that fateful day two years ago, I was surprised when, just last week, the East Coast blackout rendered my cell phone useless.

On 9/11, it was New York’s landlines that went down, thanks to disruptions to a major switching station on the southern tip of Manhattan. But those of us with cell phones managed to communicate pretty effectively with our loved ones. We organized places for people to stay, routes out of town, and, most importantly, told our friends that we were okay.

When the lights went out last week, however, so did most of our cell phones. Although we blamed the outages on overuse – and some networks simply seized up from the spike – the majority of downtime was the result of the blackout, itself. Transmission stations and cell antennae need power, and those that didn’t have back-up generators or sufficient battery power went as dead as the street lights.

As cars negotiated their rights of way through darkened intersections, people lined up at the city’s battered and abused pay phones to make their calls. Those of us sitting on the stoop in front of my building kept exchanging cell phones, thinking that someone else’s might magically connect to the nearest tower and put our calls through.

It didn’t occur to me until later that night that my own telephone line was working – that is, it would have worked if I had anything other than a cordless phone dependent on an electrically powered base unit for its transmission!

I dug through my closet, and found the old Bell Labs “Princess Phone” I had rescued from my grandmothers apartment in the Bronx after she died, and plugged it in. And, of course, it worked. The 40-volt telephone grid uses its own generator system – a redundancy engineered, in part, because of the telephone system’s importance to us in emergency situations.

Has the cellular phone system become as important to us now, as well? Is it a crucial enough utility to be submitted to the same sorts of regulations as land lines? Should our wireless carriers be required to outfit their transmitters with backup generators and other systems capable of surviving a disaster?

Does the very success of the cell phone in reaching ubiquity now demand that its service providers – and our government – treat it as a vital service, like electricity or standard phone service?

It certainly wouldn’t be welcome news to an industry already straddled with the high cost of competition. Unlike Europe, where the wireless industry is highly regulated and certain companies are even awarded monopolies, most wireless companies in the US are responsible for covering the same areas as everyone else. Each of the major carriers has their own transmission towers here in the East Village, where I live, even though they could save a whole lot more money – and gain some reliability – by sharing fewer, better equipped, facilities.

And how would a reorientation to cell phones from luxury item to crucial service change our relationship to wireless activity? Would reliability and durability of a network start to matter more than its ability to transmit photos or download games? Would the wireless world become less fun?

The inevitable unexpected crises of the coming months should provide some interesting challenges for the wireless industry. They’ve worked hard to make sure we see their devices as vital, indispensable parts of our lives. Now they’re going to have to deal with the fact that we do.