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FCC to investigate cell phone logjam after earthquake

By Dugald McConnell and Brian Todd, CNN
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Quake caused communications meltdown
  • After Tuesday's earthquake, many wireless customers said they couldn't place calls
  • Carriers say the problem was too many calls at once -- not damage from the quake
  • FCC will talk with carriers about ways to make 911 calls top priority during emergencies
  • FEMA advises sending a text if you can't place call; system can handle more texts

Washington (CNN) -- The Federal Communications Commission says it is looking into the failures of cell phone service that occurred Tuesday afternoon after the East Coast earthquake. For as long as an hour after the quake, wireless customers in Washington and elsewhere reported being unable to get calls through.

Jamie Barnett, chief of the FCC's Public Safety & Homeland Security Bureau, said that when the cell phone networks get overloaded by call volume, crucial calls might fail to go through.

"We were very concerned with the fact that 9-1-1 calls were also congested," he said. "We want to make sure that people who need emergency help are able to get it."

Although the congestion might not have jeopardized any lives in this particular incident, he said, "these are the moments when mobile phone service is needed most -- and disruptions puts lives at risk."

Major phone carriers conceded that wireless service was problematic on Tuesday, but they blamed it on too many calls being placed at once, rather than any damage to their networks or infrastructure.

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Steve Largent of the industry's Wireless Association said that it was comparable to a flood of cars causing a traffic jam at rush hour. "A huge number of users were trying to use the same highway at the same time, which caused the jam," he said.

He argued that one solution would be to apportion more bandwidth to the wireless industry. "With more spectrum, we'd have more lanes that would allow more users," he said.

But University of Maryland engineering professor Ashok Agrawala said that solving the problem was not that simple.

"Whichever system you design has a finite capacity," he said. Moreover, he said, "if they built a capacity which can handle the peak load that we had at the time of the earthquake, most of the time, most of that system will remain idle. And that will be expensive," he said, making everyone's phone bills go up.

Still, why don't 911 calls get priority over all other cell phone calls?

"There should be some way to prioritize it for emergency calls," said FCC's Barnett. "Technology is on the way, called LTE, that would allow it to go to the top of the cue." He said the FCC is asking the major cell carriers to consult with them on implementing it.

With Hurricane Irene bearing down on the East Coast, just days after that earthquake, residents might wonder whether the same problem will strike again. Since a storm does not strike at a single instant, a sudden overload of calls is less likely. But if cell phone towers are affected, wireless callers could again face trouble getting through.

Officials and phone companies suggest that customers who can't get a connection should try texting instead.

On Tuesday, @FEMA tweeted this: "Reminder: If cell phone service is busy, text or e-mail friends/family to let them know you're OK."

How can text messages get through, even when phone calls can't?

A live, two-minute phone call takes a full two minutes to transmit -- it can't be shortened, and it can't be time-shifted.

But a 100-character text can be transmitted in a fraction of a second, and can be put in a cue to be transmitted whenever a free route is identified.

Sprint spokeswoman Crystal Davis said, "We could get roughly 30-50 text messages (if not more) sent in the same period of time a call would take place."