McVaugh: Wildfire season spotlights importance of mobile connectivity during crises (column)
August 23, 2018
This summer's wildfire season in Colorado continues to place a spotlight on the state's communications infrastructure and the need for consistent, capable and reliable networks.
As residents and first responders have found time and again, dependable connectivity via mobile device is the key to more reliable emergency response. Whether it's calling for help or sending evacuation alerts, all-clear signals and traffic advisories, mobile networks have proven essential to sharing critical safety information efficiently.
Over the past decade, mobile connectivity has become paramount to public safety, specifically disaster mitigation and response. Today, 80 percent of 911 calls to police, firefighters and other first responders are initiated on mobile phones. Further, "mobile alerts," such as the Eagle County Alert System, have become the default method for first responders to notify the public of critical real-time safety information — these alerts are now utilized for everything from active shooter to weather to missing child emergencies.
The most obvious example of connectivity being at the heart of emergency service is the Wireless Emergency Alerts system, which enables government officials to target emergency alerts to specific geographic areas — Denver's LoDo, for example. Since its launch in 2012, the Wireless Emergency Alerts system has been used more than 33,000 times nationwide to alert Americans of potential dangerous situation via mobile phone.
It's no secret that the demand for mobile connectivity is growing exponentially in Colorado and across the Unites States. According the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than half of American households are wireless only and the average household has 13 connected devices — and this is just the tip of the iceberg.
As smartphones, tablets and wearable devices become more advanced and new technologies such as 5G enable lightning-fast data speeds, the appetite for mobile will only continue to grow. According to networking giant Cisco, in North America alone, mobile data traffic will reach 6.4 exabytes per month by 2021 (the equivalent of 1,599 million DVDs each month).
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Understanding the reality that we are only going to become increasingly reliant on mobile connectivity for safety, the natural question becomes, what must be done to ensure these systems don't fail? While there is no silver bullet to make these systems fail-proof, there are commonsense upgrades to our communications infrastructure that must take place to minimize the likelihood of a breakdown.
To deal with the increased data traffic, we must modernize our existing infrastructure to handle more capacity by supplementing existing infrastructure with small antenna or nodes known as small-cell solutions, or "small cells" for short. Small cells are exactly what they sound like: small, low-powered antennas located near the end user, usually on a utility pole or streetlight, that add much-needed capacity to our existing networks.
While small cell networks will certainly make videos, texts and games download faster, which has broad economic implications, the real value of creating a robust and resilient wireless network is in times of crisis. The ability to call for help or to reach a loved one to make sure they are safe during a disaster is unquantifiable.
A recent example of small cells at work during a disaster can be found in Houston. Houston upgraded the city's wireless infrastructure for the February 2017 Super Bowl; however, that network also helped with emergency communications just seven months later when Hurricane Harvey hit the city. Metrics show that the long-term investments in permanent infrastructure improvements made by the wireless industry increased both network resiliency and performance.
The good news is that companies are already deploying small-cell infrastructure in places such as Denver — major wireless carriers and communication infrastructure companies alike are deploying nodes across the city — and Vail received 29 small cells at the expense of Houston-based Crown Castle as part of cellular upgrades in conjunction with the Alpine World Ski Championships in February 2015.
Another benefit of small cell infrastructure upgrades is the technology will serve as the backbone for future networks such as 5G, which promise to turn innovations including IoT (the Internet of Things), autonomous vehicles and citywide data sharing into reality.
Finding better ways to employ mobile technology that ensures Coloradans remain safe during an emergency needs to be a top priority for our community leaders.
But we need the infrastructure to take advantage of that. Our communities deserve access to the best communication tools available when they need it the most.
Dan McVaugh is the president of the Colorado Wireless Association.