August 29, 2011, 2:42 PM — With a recent earthquake and devastation from Hurricane Irene, many cell phone users on the East Coast experienced clogged networks that made wireless calling difficult.
The wireless carriers urged users to rely on texting or email to communicate if voice calls didn't work. Home phones using wired networks were also affected by Irene, although many homeowners are removing their wired phones to save money. More than 25% of all homes in the U.S. no longer have a wired home phone, according to the FCC.
Some question whether relying on texting or emailing in a storm is enough, and whether other emerging technologies might help. Satellite phones are one option, but they are relatively expensive. Another option is the old-fashioned two-way radio that runs on amateur-radio and public-safety bands.
In the future, one Georgia Tech professor envisions greater reliance on device-to-device communications using typical consumer phones after a disaster. Computer science professor Santosh Vempala has developed LifeNet , which uses free open source software to allow consumer devices such as laptops, Android phones and battery-powered routers to form ad hoc Wi-Fi, peer-to-peer networks without the need to work with cellular towers or base stations.
While the software is available for download, Vempala said in an interview that it is still a working prototype, which was demonstrated recently at the SigComm conference in Toronto. The demonstrations provoked interest by public safety groups that want to expand the technologies available to them after a disaster occurs, he said.
"Even though cell towers are wireless, most of the communications are through a single path, so one person connects through a particular cell tower," Vempala explained. "In a disaster, a lot of people are trying to reach a small number of cell towers and things get congested."
Portable cell towers are often how the carriers add capacity during emergencies, but Vempala said "over the long term, a different approach would be better."