Designed to Let Us Down (by David Brin)

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Designed to Let Us Down:
our deliberately frail cell phone system

by David Brin

Dr. Andrew J. Viterbi, an expert on communications theory at USC, spoke up recently in support of one of the concepts I have been pushing. Based upon the obscene situation that we saw during the Hurricane Katrina Crisis, when tens of thousands of victims found themselves cut off from the world, even though they had, in their pockets, sophisticated radio communications devices – cell phones that betrayed folks the very moment they were needed most. Viterbi commented (and apologies for the embedded self-quotation):

Viterbi says:

Brin goes on to say that the teachable moment provided by Katrina was lost, and that the cellular industry could make a relatively simple, inexpensive change that would allow cell phones to still function to network survivors in a crisis :

Viterbi quotes Brin as saying:

.... almost no attention has been paid to improving the reliability and utility of our cell networks, to assist citizen action during times of emergency. To the best of my knowledge. no high level demand has gone out - from FEMA or any other agency -- for industry to address cell-system problems revealed in the devastation of America 's Gulf Coast. A correction that should be both simple/cheap and useful to implement.

What do we need? We need ways for citizens to self-organize, both in normal life and (especially) during crises, when normal channels may collapse, or else get taken over by the authorities for their own use. All this might require is a slight change -- or set of additions -- in the programming of the sophisticated little radio communications devices that we all carry in our pockets, nowadays.

How about a simple back-up mode for text messaging? One that could use packet-switching to bypass the cell towers when they are down, and pass messages from phone to phone -- or peer-to-peer -- at least among phones that are of the same type? (GSM, TDMA, CDMA etc.) All of the needed packet-switching algorithms already exist. Moreover, this would allow a drowning city (or other catastrophe zone) to fill with tens of thousands of little spots of light, supplying information to helpers and reassurance to loved ones, anywhere in the world.

These pushes of mine have not gone completely ignored or unnoticed. As Viterbi's riffs on the topic show, there have been some fascinating and insightful exchanges, discussing how the nation and public might benefit by adding peer-to-peer supplemental capabilities to the present cell system.

Some object that this development could cost millions. But that is not any real obstacle in an industry making hundreds of billions in the United States alone. If either the government or the cell companies saw a clear benefit model, it would be trivial to justify the relatively small expense. Certainly far smaller than incorporating web browsers and MP3 players!

The problem is that top-down hierarchy mentalities do not easily grasp the potential of flattened networks... and this despite the clear example of the Internet itself as a super-empowering, hierarchy-flattening phenomenon.

(Indeed, I believe that there are underlying PSYCHOLOGICAL REASONS that the twin examples of the Internet – and citizen competence on 9/11 – may have prompted an immune reaction against citizen empowerment, on the part of some members of the Paid Protector Castes. But that's another story.)

One more-cogent objection to the notion of augmenting cell phones with Peer-to-Peer capability: it takes a lot more energy to transmit than to receive. Most cell phones are actually very weak transmitters that function poorly without energetic base towers nearby.

The answer to this objection is simple. In order to use P2P effectively in a crisis, when the towers are down, personal cell phones do not have to carry voice. In an emergency, text messages can make a tremendous difference, e.g. in calling for help, or informing loved-ones that you are okay, or in passing crucial information to authorities. Especially since text messages can be transmitted with multiple repetition-redundancy, simple calculations show that pocket transmitters (cell phones) could pass these along at trivial power expenditure.

Obviously, this same answer deals with objections that P2P (peer to peer) does not carry voice well. So? The algorithms for passing along text messages are very little different from classic packet switching for email, on the Internet. Implementation ought to be trivial.

How to explain why this simple augmentation has not been implemented, even though it is clearly in the national and public interest? One theory is that the cell companies may feel threatened by P2P capabilities. Or that they see no way to make money off them. But this needn't be a problem. For one thing, it should be easy for each hand set to track passed-on messages and inform the network, for billing purposes. Or else the P2P system can be turned off, whenever there is a fully functional cell tower nearby! Thus, automatically reverting to P2P only under circumstances when the capability is actually needed!

Moreover, there is an added allure to this approach, one that could help the cell-cos make real money. By developing P2P capability, companies may open the door to a new method for solving their "last mile problem" - or how to extend coverage into dark zones, just beyond reach of their current network of towers. Think. Why not let customers who happen to be at the edge of the coverage area get a small pay-back fee for every text message that they pass through, from people who are just outside the covered zone? The same way people with solar or wind generators can make their meters run backward, feeding power into the grid.

If such customers had a more sophisticated home-cradle unit, they might even be able to pass through voice calls from a nearby dark zone. Reducing their own bill, helping the company, and making our entire communications system more robust.

Indeed, can anyone doubt that someday, somebody will realize there is a business plan in this? An entirely peer-to-peer wireless network, in which, customers home-cradle units make up the bulk of an alternative cell system? But we'll save that futuristic sci fi scenario for another time. What I am talking about, here, is something that could be implemented in just one year, if anyone (like FEMA) were actually serious about fostering a more resilient and robust society. A pretty big "if" - apparently.

The fact that cell phones served the national defense so well on 9/11, yet failed in Katrina, should have been enough to tell us that serious work is needed, work that has been entirely lacking while we let ourselves be distracted on other adventures. I mean, isn't it a no-brainer for Homeland Security and FEMA to support this kind of capability, in the national interest?

After thinking about it, how do YOU feel about the sophisticated little tranceiver radio in your pocket, now that you know that it was designed almost perfectly to let you down, someday, at the very moment that you might need it most?

Notes / Discussion