Increased Call Volume Following Virginia Tech Tragedy Caused Wireless Outage

Wireless companies have not yet found a system to deal with outages caused by the inevitable dramatic increase in cell phone calls placed during an emergency. From Eweek:

The inability of students and others at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., to make cell phone calls during the April 16 shooting tragedy added to the chaos surrounding the events of the day, students and others have reported in media interviews.

According to the article, Verizon is the only wireless carrier admitting to call blocking during the emergency. Cingular claims to have experienced higher volumes but no service interruptions.

“We did see some call blocking,” [Verizon's Spokesperson] said. “We did also see some heavy text message traffic. A lot of folks have learned that it’s much easier to get a text message through at that time than to get a voice call through.”

Verizon has set up a COLT (Cell on Light Truck), while Cingular has added radios to nearby cell sites. Sprint says they don’t offer service in the Virginia Tech area, and instead rely on their affiliates. T-Mobile did not return calls for comment. Each company’s spokesperson acknowledged that cell phone service in emergencies has been a constant problem. Cingular spokesperson added that text messaging is a good alternative.

“We had no problems with text messaging,” [Cingular's Spokesperson] noted. “It’s a great alternative in these situations.”

—MEGHANN MARCO

Wireless Problems Played Part in Chaos at Virginia Tech [Eweek]

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  1. Having telephone service blackouts during an emergency situation isn’t exactly a surprise – wireless OR wired.

    It was about ten years ago when a minor earthquake hit somewhere in Washington state, and could be felt as a very gentle shaking up in Vancouver – you can see the lamp rocking back and forth slowly, but that was about it. I was on the phone at the time to a friend (the call stayed connected without issues), and hung up a few minutes later to try to place another call. No lines free, no dial tone. It was probably ten minutes before I could actually get a line to call out.

    Why? Well, everyone else was an idiot just like me, trying to call a friend to say “hey, did you feel that?” Fortunately I wasn’t one of the (apparently thousands) of morons who called 911 to ask them whether or not it was actually an earthquake.

  2. acambras says:

    People had trouble with cell service on 9/11, partially because of equipment lost in the attacks, and partially because so many people were desperately trying to reach others.

    I agree with AndrewMartens — this isn’t a tremendous shocker. Telecommunications trouble should be considered in emergency preparedness planning at all levels — national, state, local, and family.

  3. indianaguy says:

    of course this is going to happen and it happens across all boards. California has blackouts each year because of the strain on electricity. Banks don’t carry all the money they have deposited so if an emergency you could possibly not be able to get your money.

    It is not feasible to make a system ( communication, infastructure, etc.. ) that can handle the entire population.

  4. Athenor says:

    Wait, a cell truck? I mean… the call volume is still that heavy to require additional cell sites? Hmm… I guess it’s believable.

    Sprint openly admits to not covering a major college campus. Interesting news.

    Also, I’m a little wary of this promotion of text messaging. But that might just be the cynic in me.

  5. raybury says:

    A limit on call time, with some workaround for ‘hey I need to stay connected a doctor is talking me though a autotracheotomy here,’ might make a lot of sense in these cases. I wonder if that would be a contract issue, in which case it could be very hard to cut in without enabling legislation.

  6. Mr. Gunn says:

    The school’s in New Orleans have announced that they will use text messages rather than email if a similar event happens here. What they need is a big-ass set of speakers on top of the biggest building on campus, and speakers in the buildings, but I guess texting is incrementally better.

  7. Seacub says:

    It’s supposed to work this way. When switches and networks are overloaded, by design inbound traffic will be minimized to allow for outbound trunking to allow more people to either call out for help or make the “I’m ok” call. Best bet is to call out long distance to a friend or relative in another state, long distance trunking is seperate from local trunking.

    As with any PBX, there are more phone sets than there is dialtone bandwidth. If everyone on a PBX goes off-hook at the same time the switch will crash. Saw that all over the place during the last big Seattle earthquake.

  8. MeOhMy says:

    @Seacub: Exactly…if there was no wireless, the landlines would lock up just as much.

    Done right, it seems like UMA could potentially help, as some of the traffic could be borne by another medium…

  9. rbb says:

    Cell sites are only set up to handle a small percentage of the total number of customers, just like a bank only keeps enough money on had to service a small number of customers.

    But, if for some reason a large number of customers suddenly all want to use either service at once, both fail.

    If you ever find yourself in a situation where the cell service in your area collapses because of a major emergency, here are some tips and insights:

    Certain types of calls have a better chance of getting through than others. Cell to local landlines have near zero chance of getting through. Each cell has only a limited number and people use these to call home.

    Cell to special cell numbers like those used by radio stations (*WTOP) or State Police (#77) have good chance of getting through because they bypass landlines. I actually called WTOP to get a traffic sitrep after the Pentagon got hit because I had to get to an alternate location…

    Cell to long distance. After the Pentagon got smacked, most people tried to call home and tied up the local landlines. But, I took a chance that the long distance lines were still available. So, I tried calling friends in San Antonio Texas. I was able to get ahold of them on the first try (!). I gave them all the information and they called my wife to let her know I ws OK.

    Cellphone to cellphone coverage was also spotty and would dump you into the voicemail of the person’s cell you were calling. That’s a good thing. Leave all the details in a voice message. Then they call you back and leave a message. Slow? Yes. Inefficient? Yes. But does it get the job done? YES!

    Change the greeting message to your voicemail to let your friends and family who call know what’s going on.

    Above all: KEEP YOUR CALLS SHORT AND TO THE POINT. DO NOT MAKE UNNECESSARY CALLS. KKEP THE LINES OPEN!!!

  10. saaron34 says:

    @acambras: what equipment lost are you talking about? As I understand, only television and satellite equipment was mounted on the towers, and some sort of repeater for firefighter radio use. Was there a cell tower on there as well?

  11. cybrbanana says:

    @Mr. Gunn

    Even text message services can become bogged down. I was cheering a friend on at the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington D.C. and signed up to get a text everytime my marathoner passed a certain point in the race (about 10 points). Since there were about 23,000 people running and lots of family members and friends gathered in a relatively small area – I suspect the system broke. I only received one text the entire time (and yes, my friend ran the entire race).

  12. acambras says:

    @saaron34:
    I thought there was a cell tower on one of the towers (or close enough to sustain damage), but maybe I’m wrong.

  13. droppedD says:

    I’m a little disgusted that the Cingular spokesperson turned it into an opportunity to pimp their way-higher-profiting SMS services. Less data for more money, that’s the name of the game.

    Not “we’re committed to keeping service going no matter what,” but, “hey, you paid us for voice but if it doesn’t work, pay us more and use SMS!”

    and acting like that’s a great thing about text rather than a bad thing about their network node capacity.

  14. formergr says:

    They may be pimping the cheaper SMS, but after the London tube bombings last year, I heard the same thing (that you have a better chance of getting a text through)– and I believe in the UK texting is actually cheaper than calls.

  15. I just had training yesterday on the Telecom Act of 2007, and one of the pushes is for redundancy in cases of public ‘events’ like this.

  16. govkid201 says:

    As far as i could tell the only people who couldn’t call out were those using verizon. cingular worked. I couldn’t call out from like 10 (when i woke up) until almost 2 in the afternoon. and the school phone system wasn’t working either. it was a mess. i am sure it happens during emergencies because my first instinct and that of my friends were to call home, call friends and check in on everybody.
    there wasn’t really anyway to prepare any of the communication outlets for this either. it was just a bad situation.

  17. pearlandopal says:

    @Athenor: Sprint doesn’t cover the VT campus because they’re in the mountains. I went to Appalachian State, which is also in mountainous terrain, and cellphones only worked in half the town. The other half of town was SOL.

  18. DougS says:

    re: WTC cell towers.

    The sites were more likely on the surrounding buildings that were damaged. Remember a number of buildings were destroyed by the towers collapsing.
    Additionally, there were power outages in all of lower Manhattan.
    And land lines were messed up too. I was there a week later and couldnt find a credit card machine or ATM that worked.

    Great advice rbb.

    I would add having a small set of walkie talkies for short range communications if possible.

  19. Grrrrrrr, now with two buns made of bacon. says:

    As had been pointed out, cell sites were never designed to handle every handset within range of the tower initiating a call at once. Likewise with landline switches, the PSTN was designed to handle a certain number of calls distributed over a certain time frame, but not all at once.

    There was a point before DSL and broadband came online that telco’s were getting really upset because people would dial in on computer modems and tie up outgoing trunk lines for hours at a time..to the point where in rare cases, people wanting to make a telephone call couldn’t get a trunk line out of the CO.

    I’ve also seen cases where I’ve had cell calls apparently “dumped” for no apparent reason. I’d be interested to know if Verizon has a certain algorithm set up so that users that have been in a conversation for more than a certain amount of time get booted so that people initiating a call always get a dialtone (and thus, always get the impression that there are plenty of system resources, when there really aren’t). Or, maybe I’m just paranoid.

  20. tazewell78 says:

    @ saaron34:

    In New York on 9/11, an entire Verizon Central office was destroyed. That will take down some traffic.

  21. saaron34 says:

    @DougS: what other buildings were destroyed due to the tower collapse? specifics?

    @tazewell78: what verizon central office was destroyed? what building was that in?

    This all comes as news to me, and I would like to know where this information came from.

    Sorry if this is getting off topic.

  22. FLConsumer says:

    There’s one easy solution for this — VoIP. The VoIP provider I use has multiple data centers in multiple states with automatic roll-over to a working data center if the one you’re using has failed. Having gone through 4 hurricanes over the past 3 years, VoIP was the only form of communications which didn’t go down.

    Land lines require power AND phone lines to be intact and work. In a hurricane, power’s usually the first thing to go. In FL, Sprint (local phone co at the time) had bought up many local phone co’s and fired many of the experienced, higher-paid tech staff. Needless to say, the older systems weren’t well documented, so Sprint had no idea where to put generators. They THOUGHT they did, but the storms showed otherwise. Also, the new fiber concentrators now require power and there’s thousands of them scattered around the area. After Wilma, phones worked for about 6 hours after the storm had hit…then the system slowly started to die over the next 6-12 hours. It’d be 2 weeks before it’d be brought back up online.

    Cell towers rely upon power and land lines and also require the towers to be intact. When you start getting 130mph+ sustained winds, those towers don’t stand much of a chance. Add in the limited radio spectrum they normally have and there’s a good chance you’re not going to get through unless you have a 1st responder / Emergency Management priority code attached to your phone acct.

    Enter VoIP. In hurricane season I usually keep 1-2 weeks’ worth of fuel for the generator on-hand. If I was using land-line or cell, I could have all the power backup I wanted, but if the provider was down (very likely), I was screwed. With VoIP, all I need to have is working internet, which is surprisingly easy to find after a disaster. In my area, cable & phone went out, but my microwave internet & many times cable internet and DSL were still functional if you had power to run the modem. Once you’re up and running, no congestion to deal with, no trouble placing calls. Plenty of bandwidth to spare.