When Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast in late October of 2012, about a quarter of the cell phone tower sites in the region shut down, causing millions of lost calls. With flood waters rising and winds raging, many could not reach loved ones or emergency services. Even days later, service outages remained widespread.
In response, on February 5, 2013, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) held its first post-storm field hearing to examine the challenges to the country’s communications networks posed by natural disasters like Sandy and other crises. Among the participants was Shivendra S. Panwar, a professor in the electrical and computer engineering department at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University (NYU-Poly), a faculty member of NYU WIRELESS, and director of the New York State Center for Advanced Technology in Telecommunications (CATT). Panwar, who is a leader in the field of wireless research, which includes the study of femtocells--small, low-power cellular base stations usually intended for use in a home or office--sat on a panel titled “Outside the Box: New Ideas to Improve Communications Services.”
At the hearing, in addition to discussing femtocells--which connect to the service provider’s network via broadband and can greatly expand both coverage and capacity--Panwar stressed the importance of cooperation between companies to prevent the dangerous service disruptions that occurred during Sandy.
“The convergence of the cellular industry on a common standard, 4G LTE, offers an opportunity, heretofore unavailable, to build robustness across competing carriers during man-made and natural disasters,” he explained. “Aggregating resources would allow emergency communications to be provided to customers. If two identical carriers pool their resources, they can double the capacity delivered to each customer, even as their combined pool of customers doubles. Equivalently, this means near normal service can be maintained even if half the cell towers are lost during a disaster.”
He also pointed out that such cooperation would incur only a modest incremental increase in cost, making it exceedingly feasible on a practical level.
With many consumers giving up their landlines for the sake of economy and depending totally on mobile networks, the issue is a vital one for both telecommunications engineers and policy makers.
“Clearly a regulatory and policy environment that encourages cooperation between competing service providers would be needed to bring this vision to fruition,” Panwar asserted.
The recipient of numerous accolades, including the IEEE Communication Society's Leonard G. Abraham Prize in the Field of Communication Systems, Panwar was joined on the panel by Brian Fontes, the head of the National Emergency Number Association, a professional organization solely focused on 9-1-1 policy, technology, operations, and education issues; Bill Smith, the president of network operations at AT&T; and other select industry leaders.