Hurricanes Irma and Harvey brought a wake-up call from Mother Nature to all of us who work on Internet of Things (IoT) and Smart Cities — reminding us even with all that cool tech like smart lighting, smart buildings, connected parking, and smart-fill-in-the-blank, Gaia still holds sway. Now that She has our attention, let’s bow down to the Internet of Nature (IoN) and take stock of what these disasters can teach us about the importance of resilience.
As of this writing, the numbers coming from the FCC Disaster Information Reporting System (DIRS) for Irma are stabilizing – and they are sobering. Here’s the damage to the communications infrastructure across the reporting areas of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Florida, Georgia, and Alabama.
-Number of cell towers knocked out of service: 4,039
–40% of the cell towers in the Broward/Miami-Dade metro area, out of service
–7.6 million with no wireline/cable service (including Internet access)
-Broadcasting: 9 TV stations and 51 radio stations went off the air
-Overall cell tower infrastructure knocked off-air: 23%
For context, according to Maggie Reardon, Superstorm Sandy – who memorably flooded New York City’s subway system in 2012 – took down about 25% of wireless sites across 10 affected states. Before Sandy, Katrina took out 1,000+ cell sites in New Orleans. The immediate precursor to Irma, Harvey, actually turned out to be a relative wimp, taking down 4% of the 7,800 sites in its path — far fewer than the 4,000+ sites that Irma knocked out.
Before going into the telco response, let’s take a moment to acknowledge that the scope of the disaster is far wider than we discuss here. While we focus on the southeastern U.S., the damage in the Caribbean was both less reported and more severe: The Virgin Islands had 53% of wireless service knocked out, and the damage to Barbuda’s infrastructure is close to 100%. Apart from a handful of satellite phones and portable broadband terminals from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), it’s not clear what is happening on the ground there from a telecom perspective.
In the U.S., the chatter out of the devastations includes an inventory of disaster recovery telco infrastructure assets, demonstrating once again that, yes, telco speaks in acronyms. This includes a menagerie of COWs (Cell on Wheels, base stations on trucks), COLTS (Cells on Light Trucks), CROWs (Cellular Repeater On Wheels), and yes it gets worse, even GOATs (Generator on a Truck). The new kid on the block of emergency communications is of course drones, and this spate of storms really marked the debut of drones on national stage in disaster response operations. But consider it a wakeup call from above — and not just for telecoms.
NPR’s Laura Sydell filed an informative post on emergency drones policy that helps inform what the future holds: grounding all hobbyist flights, while expediting permits for NGO, government, and commercial (we assume that would include news organizations) flights during the emergency.
On the ground, with a total of over 800 local and tandem central office switches knocked out of commission, the drama unfolded in a predictable way. Here’s a description by AT&T Senior Vice President Chris Sambar:
“Their [central-office personnel’s] job, with a shop vac, was to make sure that water didn’t get into the central office….When we put them in there, we caulked the doors, we taped the doors and we put sandbags on the doors, from the outside. So these guys were essentially locked in a vault — they did a fantastic job and made a heroic effort.”
Which brings us to the $6 billion network fix, the newly-awarded National Public Safety Broadband network known as FirstNet. Congress authorized the creation of FirstNet as an “authority” within the NTIA, to manage the awarding of specially reserved 700 MHz spectrum that is prioritized for a nationwide 4G LTE wireless network designed for use by any U.S. state or territory that wants to move off of individual state-owned-and-operated legacy wireless networks to a modern, wireless broadband platform that supports smartphones (instead of — or in addition to — walkie-talkies). AT&T won the bid to be the network operator that actually deploys the network, and it coordinates a process whereby each state can opt in to the network or get a check to build their own equivalent network. Sambar is the head of FirstNet.
As of this month, after beginning the opt-in process over the summer, 20 states have opted into the network. In thinking about FirstNet, and the shape of Public Safety in the Age of IoT, we start to see how technology assets used in first responder situations have commonalities with tech used in Smart Cities. You can imagine your own, but here is just a taste to get your going: realtime video deployed on drones or other public spaces, various sensor and even distributed machine learning deployments blasting data up to the cloud for streaming analytics, 3D scanning for point clouds of people, substances, assets, and of course mesh-like peer-to-peer multimedia communications when centralized elements like cell sites go offline. Indeed, Laurent Reynaud, a colleague at Orange co-authored a paper on distributed LTE for disaster resilience.
One of the biggest factors in resilience is not letting the cell site go down in the first place by having the best back-up power it can have. Don’t take our word for it; here is Chris Sambar’s boss, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, speaking on this topic at an industry conference this week, as Irma left the building:
“Today, because of Irma, 25% of our cell sites are down. Virtually all of that is because of a lack of power.”
One of the critiques in the wake of Katrina was that US operators were still using fuel tanks with limited supplies of oil in them. Indeed, critics pointed to the industry trade association CTIA lobbying against any attempt to mandate some kind of minimum requirement. The argument is always the same: Nobody knows the telco business better than telcos, so don’t attempt to dictate what acceptable back-up power standards should be.
The plot thickens even more when we consider that Sambar stated in front of a Senate committee that “AT&T is not aware of a single agreed-upon definition for public-safety grade” standards. In fact, a 123-page specification detailing an acceptable grade for a resilient public-safety network was written in May 2014 by the National Public Safety Telecommunication Council, and is headed for ANSI standardization. Sambar apologized to the group for his remark this week; clearly, this hurricane season has demonstrated how timely and important FirstNet is for us all, and we are excited to track its progress.
Looking ahead, we can add two more certainties to Death and Taxes, courtesy of IoT and IoN. There will be more and more riding on wireless networks, and there will be more and more disruptive weather events, especially alongside coastal urban areas where networks are densest. This inevitability will not just deserve our attention; it will demand it.