As Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast in October 2012, I walked across the Williamsburg Bridge into downtown Manhattan and was met with an apocalyptic landscape: a massive area of New York City that became known as South of Power.
Today’s first responders — facing floods, hurricanes and wildfires amid the COVID-19 pandemic — find themselves equally disconnected, especially in the critical first hours after a disaster strikes. As we’ve seen in incidents as recently as Oregon’s Beachie Creek fire this past summer, disasters are quick to damage and destroy our communications infrastructure like cell towers and radio repeaters.
The only way to resume operations safely is to wait for stop-gap solutions to be set in place, or rush to rebuild — whatever’s quicker or cheaper at the time. Emergency communications failures are persistent, even though it’s widely known and acknowledged that reliable communications could prevent cascading negative impacts in every aspect of the response.
When 17 cell towers were knocked out on the first day of Northern California’s Camp Fire in 2018, emergency evacuation alerts failed to reach two-thirds of local residents who subscribed to receive those notifications. The tragic loss of life in that wildfire wasn’t the first time we’ve learned this lesson the hard way. At what point do we admit that it’s time for it to be the last?
One potential silver lining in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is the new attention to America’s digital divide: the reality that much of the country lacks access to a high-speed, reliable Internet connection. While policymakers and community leaders have made every effort to close this divide in support of everything from remote learning to telemedicine in 2020, there is still a glaring connectivity gap that no form of cell, Wi-Fi or satellite infrastructure could ever fill. Sure, we could (and should) continue to push telecommunications providers to meet more aggressive disaster resilience requirements, extend better coverage in low-income and rural communities, and even usher a quicker, broader rollout of 5G.
But when it comes to disaster response, the oh-so-coveted combination of low-latency, high speeds and extra bandwidth are only as good as the infrastructure in buildings and on the ground. Just like their predecessors, proposed solutions to improve our mobile networks are inherently fragile because of their reliance on traditional, centralized infrastructure.
Centralized communications systems — the standard for today’s cell, Wi-Fi and satellite networks — rely on a central hub to route data from point A to point B. Those hubs, often in the form of towers and repeaters, are also single points of failure when a disaster destroys everything in its path. These systems are expensive to build and implement in the first place, and once they fail, they cost even more precious minutes that could mean life or death during a response. There is perhaps no better illustration of our misplaced hype on centralized communications than in rural and isolated communities.
Take Puerto Rico for example. After Hurricane Irma struck the island in 2017, it left large amounts of its antiquated telecommunications infrastructure inoperable. The island did not have enough time to rebuild before Hurricane Maria struck with devastating consequences that remain an issue even today.
Recent federal aid packages for rural broadband connectivity, however well-intentioned, prove these solutions aren’t a silver bullet for everyone, everywhere. Many communities in Puerto Rico do not qualify for these subsidies because they are too close to the capital of San Juan to be designated “rural” under the program. And even if they did, would it keep them connected during the next storm?
The fact is, the communities where we want to bridge the digital divide are already the most challenging and dangerous operating environments for first responders.
With no end in sight to COVID-19 and the heightened severity of natural disasters, we need a solution that forgoes the need for centralized communications infrastructure — if and when it fails, whether this week, next month or next year. We can do this today by incentivizing peer-to-peer mesh networks that depend on nothing other than the technology first responders already have at their fingertips: smartphones.
Low-cost mesh networking devices use radio frequencies to transmit data from device-to-device; when paired with a smartphone and a preferred mobile app, these networks can enable communications completely independent of cell, Wi-Fi and satellite services.
Instead of prioritizing high speed and bandwidth like 5G does, mesh networks often put a greater emphasis on range and ensuring the necessary information successfully reaches the recipient, no matter what. While first responders couldn’t stream a high-resolution video on a long-range, low-bandwidth mesh network, they could certainly track the location of their team members on a map and exchange text messages with the latest incident updates — the most fundamental aspects of situational awareness that have been limited for far too long. 2020 has exposed many gaps between the status quo and what our “new normal” could be. We know that the future of emergency communications must reach every last mile in every community.
But for every communications solution that lays the groundwork for our most ambitious ideas and aspirations, we also need to consider our most urgent and basic ones. If we strike the balance with centralized and decentralized communications, our society will be well on the way to a safer, more resilient future where connectivity never lets us down.
Daniela Perdomo is co-founder and CEO of goTenna, a leading mobile mesh networking company, working to decentralize connectivity and address society’s ultimate last mile.
— Emergency Management Magazine