NextGov Tech: Why Relying on Cell Phones is Bad in Emergencies

By: John Breeden II
February 7, 2017

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The recent woman’s march on DC showed the limitations of smartphone technology. During a crisis or an emergency, or in this case a massive protest march, cellular service can become overloaded.

Photo Courtesy of the Firetruck Parking Simulator App on Google Play.
Photo Courtesy of the Firetruck Parking Simulator App on Google Play.

One of the biggest limitations with the technology is that when too many people try to use a cellular tower or base station at the same time, it can’t process every call. Everyone’s phone downtown that day probably showed a full signal, which is true because their phones were detecting it, but they were still not able to make calls. Error messages like “not registered on network,” “call blocked” or “network busy” were commonly reported. A few people got calls through, but only sporadically.

The FirstNet Logo
The FirstNet Logo

This also shined a light on the fact that state and local first responders don’t have magic cell phones that work during emergencies. And their radios aren’t interoperable. Trying to loop state and local first responders into a unified system is a huge undertaking. That mission is the job of the The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), an independent agency overseeing development of a nationwide broadband network for first responders.

Read more about these many issues on NextGov.