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Articles like this one are increasingly common, as PG&E service failures combined with consumer stupidity have made communications gaps painfully obvious to the masses.
However, it is angering and frustrating to see legislators promote false and dubious solutions to these issues, rather than addressing the underlying problems. California Senator Mike McGuire, whose constituency was heavily affected by the PG&E outages, is the latest to join in to the endless cascade of delusional and dangerous "solutions".
McGuire proposed a bill that would mandate cell towers in California's high-risk fire areas to have sufficient backup power for at least 2 days. Maybe it sounds good, on the surface, but this solution is fatally flawed.
Mobile coverage was never intended to be all-encompassing, universally available, and always reliable. Mobile communications is inherently unreliable, as anyone who has ever experienced a dropped call can attest. The humble landline is the gold standard in robust and reliable telecommunications, with a "5 nines" (99.999%) reliability that will likely never be surpassed by any other form of civilian communications, anywhere, ever.
Landlines are the true lifelines. The article does get one thing right when it points out that, "Cell phones have replaced landlines in nearly 60% of households". However, contrary to what social media addicts might claim, it's not an "essential part of contemporary life". Far from it. These devices were intended to be adjuncts — complements — to traditional landline service — never a replacement for it.
Cutting the cord, as this dangerous practice is popularly known, is the real problem, the elephant in the room which nobody wants to discuss. The vulnerability of cellular communications, easily exposed by disasters and power outages such as this one, highlights the incredibly fragile infrastructure on which customers are willingly reliable. Solid, dependable communications have increasingly given way to unstable, unreliable communications in many American households. Sure, landline phones may be boring, but that doesn't make them any less essential in an emergency. They are absolutely crucial for disaster preparedness, and anybody who believes he is doing himself a favor by cutting the cord is seriously kidding himself. Millions of Californians may have only just realized what the true implications of "cord cutting" really are. A landline is perhaps not something that the average person today would easily miss &mdas; until you need it, and it's not there.
McGuire's proposal to mandate backup power at cell sites is no less dubious than other contemporary solutions which misplace trust in fragile communications. For one, it's an unwieldy tasks. Conventional landlines are powered entirely by the central office, over the same wires you use to talk. To provide backup power for an entire area's phone lines simply mean ensuring that one central office building has adequate backup power. And, unsurprisingly, central offices are some of the most hardened and redundant buildings around today. Somebody once said, "After a nuclear apocalypse, there'd be two things left: cockroaches and central offices"1. Hopefully, we don't ever learn if that's true or not, but central offices are extremely well-prepared to handle emergencies.
Now, compare this with the cellular network, which is anything but. In contrast to a single building which always has enormous power reserves, cell sites are geographically distributed and many. In other words, there are lots of them covering the same geographic area that a single central office might serve, and the infrastructure is fairly minimal. It is simply ridiculous to expect "central office"-grade power reserves to be provided and maintained at dozens, perhaps hundreds, of geographically distributed sites. Doing so is extremely costly and doesn't even make sense in the first place, considering that cellular communications was never meant to be — and tends not to be — reliable in an emergency.
Furthermore, McGuire seems to have forgotten a simple reality: no matter HOW WELL cell sites are powered during an outage, the end-devices THEMSELVES require their own power source. What good is it to have a robust backup power solution for cell sites if nobody has a working cell phone? There are an astonishingly high number of points of failure in the process of making a cellular call, and these points of failure are kept to a minimal with landline phones where most of the infrastructure is in the central office. Short of a pole coming down, there is not much that can happen that could temporarily create a service outage. McGuire eagerly criticized mobile operators for failing to deliver on an inherently unreliable service, but where are the mentions of the complete lack of mobile service during Superstorm Sandy? Does anyone remember the lines of people for payphones that were BLOCKS long? Like or not, landlines have proven their usefulness time and time again in emergencies.
Senator Harris, from California, similarly wrote "it is incumbent on cell service providers to mitigate impacts to communications equipment during power shutoffs". But why should it be? Cellular service is incredibly fragile to begin with, and will fail on a dime as been shown time and time again. Requiring that cellular operators provide backup power to their inherently unreliable infrastructure further promotes to the public the fallacy that it is OK to rely on cellular communications in an emergency. Guess what? It is not OK. It never was OK, and it never will be OK. Consumers who have dropped their landline should not expect anything in an emergency. Furthermore, they shouldn't act surprised about it, or worse, get outraged when their service goes out. It's what they signed up for what they cut the cord.
McGuire's call for backup power, however, isn't entirely misplaced. Although he didn't mention it, an actual problem that needs addressing is the increasing trend of landline phones not working in a power outage. What? What happened to the "5 nines" reliability standard?
Well, the average consumer may find that the "5 nines" standard will never be realizable again. The problem is that many landlines, increasingly, are no longer served directly by the central office, but are instead served by a remote concentrator2. These tend to be large roadside cabinets located in outlying areas in suburbs or perhaps rural areas, where the central office is not geographically nearby. Inside these cabinets, copper lines are aggregated and terminated, and fiber is run back to the central office. The problem with this is obvious: fiber is not copper. The most important implication here is that fiber does not carry electricity. Copper phones work because the central office delivers electricity over the same wires you use to talk. This isn't the case with fiber, which carries only data. As subscribers to digital landline services from cable companies often find, their landlines don't work in emergencies.
While it's reasonable to find that your digital landline or VoIP service doesn't work in a power outage, it is NOT reasonable to find that your analog P.O.T.S. landline service does not work in a power outage! Yet, this is increasingly the case, in California and elsewhere. As lines are moved to remote units, the same problem that affects cellular sites comes into play: there are many remote concentrators, geographically distributed and with minimal infrastructure. Like most cell sites, essentially none of these maintain their own backup power reserves, or only have a minimal amount, essentially degrading landline reliability to be only slightly better than cellular reliability.
This practice is actually unacceptable. Landlines are lifelines, and it is reasonable for people to expect that they will always work, power outage or not. If McGuire wants to truly fix this "life or death" situation, then he and other legislators should fix a bigger, actually more important problem here that is putting lives on the line. Landlines must be fully operational in all power conditions, not just when these remote concentrators have power. The practice of not providing copper all the way to the central office is truly to blame here, as that is what started this all in the first place. However, as long as these curbside cabinets exist, phone companies must ensure that they are operational in power outages and disasters. We already know that cellular communications will fail in an emergency, and it is wholly unreasonable to expect that they will not. At the same time, people are entitled to a working landline in all conditions, and anything short of this is simply unacceptable, as they are the forms of communication on which people truly depend (and should, if they do not). Ensuring that these units have backup power is paramount to keeping civilians safe in power outages, disasters, and other emergencies.
Although people whose primary language is emojis may have forgotten, landlines beat mobiles hands down when it comes to reliability and disaster preparedness. Remote concentrators, however, threaten to plunge us all into the dark ages before common-battery phones, the late 1800s when local power was required to operate a telephone. Already, we have returned to an early 1900s level of payphone accessibility in the United States. Remote concentrators are yet another way that service today tends to be less reliable than it used to be. Ensuring that remote concentrators are reliably powered and do not fail in an emergency is the REAL solution to the communications crisis that Americans are increasingly finding themselves in. Even the 40% of Americans who have a landline are not adequately prepared for an emergency if their lines are mostly served by remote concentrators, rendering them useless in a power outage. Legislators who want to truly improve communications reliability in emergencies where it matters most must invest in improving the reliability of remote concentrators. This will ensure that EVERY landline has a dial tone in a power outage.
Ignoring the pleas of those unable to send emojis in a power outage and instead focusing on ensuring that a rather mundane technology is operational during a power outage may not be the most popular choice amongst consumers, but it is the right choice nevertheless. In this case, the usual logic of "the customer is always right" simply does not apply, because most people have proved to be too ignorant to know what they actually need. News agencies also contribute to the hysteria and widespread myths, as demonstrated by numerous articles preceding expected power shut-offs that alert consumers to ensure they have a "fully charged cell phone" and make no mention of landlines at all. If news agencies wish to make sure that as few people can communicate during an emergency as possible, they're doing a pretty decent job!
As is obvious to anyone who knows how the nation's communications infrastructure operates, providing backup power to cell sites is a frivolous, ignorant, and downright dangerous goal. No doubt, if it happened, consumers would place even more confidence in fragile communications networks and be even less likely to give any thought to the true lifeline: the landline. Even if cell sites were equipped with backup power, the millions of cell phones that connect to them are not. Actually, rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic is probably a more productive use of resources; some of them were bound to get thrown in the water. In contrast, providing backup power to cell sites will just further contribute to climate change while providing nothing to show for it.
Legislators must use moments like this as a wake-up call and recognize the necessity of providing backup power - not to cell sites - but remote concentrators. These are the true lifelines, and they are what people have looked to in times of crisis for nearly 150 years, and people must be able to continue to do this for the next 150 years and beyond. Landlines owe their reliability to their underlying infrastructure and the method by which the operator, and this is a domain in which cell phones cannot even compete. Rather than wasting resources trying to improve fragile infrastructure that simply can't be improved, it is imperative that we fix the gaps in the far more reliable infrastructure that people depend on most. Landlines are by far the best-poised to be the reliable, dependable communications that people need in all circumstances - they were, universally, until remote concentrators. By improving this infrastructure, we can return to a level of service and reliability that has remained unsurpassed in telecommunications, and ensure that everyone has a lifeline all the time. (At least, everyone smart enough to have not cut the cord.) It is simply ridiculous that everyone could maintain service in the 1970s during a power outage, and thanks to so-called "progress", fewer people are able to communicate during a power outage than ever before in the last 100 years. People deserve better.
1The source of that quote was Bill Walker, director of IT architecture at Centurylink. Here's the full text:
The only thing left after a nuclear explosion will be cockroaches and central offices. They cannot move, they cannot evolve, the only way to rebuild them is to rebuild them around the existing building or else you are interrupting 911 service, emergency response and people's connectivity. — CenturyLink
2The "concentrators" alluded to were usually SLC-96 carrier systems (at least in NET& T). Before fiber became widespread, they were fed over T1 lines, which ran on copper pairs - but the power in the copper was used to feed T-Carrier repeaters, not telephone instruments. In other words, the reliability problem was not one of fiber vs. copper, but rather was caused by intro- ducing active devices at midpoints between the central office and the customers' POTS phones.
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