Boston Bomb Attack – Cell Service & M-EAS

The Boston bomb attack is simply a horrible example of humanity at its worst.  We offer our prayers and sympathy to all of those touched by this tragic and terrible event.  We also applaud and celebrate the heroes that stepped forward and demonstrated the best of humanity through their love and caring in a desperate time.

Not that it is over by a long shot, but after the initial shock and awe of this event, we must ask how we can be better prepared to respond and cover such tragedies.  One immediate and glaring fact is that the cellular phone systems failed miserably.  This is well documented, and acknowledged by most of the major carriers.   It was so bad that one early report from the AP was that the networks had been purposefully shut down.

Bloomberg BusinessWeek noted during the bombing that “we rely on cell phones to run our lives, but they tend to be useless—or at least far from useful—when we need them most.”

The major cell phone providers in the Boston area experienced extraordinarily high call volumes during the bombing, which clogged cell networks and made them an ineffective method of relaying information to the public, with AT&T late that Monday afternoon asking users “For those in the area, please use text & we ask that you keep non-emergency calls to a minimum” and Verizon stating that “customers are advised to use text or email to free up voice capacity for public safety officials at the scene.”  Sprint also noted that they experienced “above-normal call blocking in Boston as a result of today’s events…”

Mobile DTV has an important role to play here and the mobile emergency alert system (M-EAS) could have aided in the distribution of vital information.

One of the great advantages of M-EAS is that it is not subject to the bottlenecks, back ups and failures of the cellular system.  Because it is broadcast, M-EAS can get alerts to everyone simultaneously without delay.  It is also redundant by virtue of there being multiple broadcasters in every market.  And, M-EAS can deliver a wide array of media types — text, images, video files, and HTML pages — to mobile phones to provide relatively in-depth information.

While M-EAS certainly would not have prevented all of the congestion created by the Boston bomb attack, it would have provided a valuable source of reliable information that could have reached everyone with a mobile device.   These alerts and information ride on broadcaster spectrum and can be stored and continually updated on mobile devices without impacting cellular network usage.  Some of the possible alerts and files delivered could have looked like this:

  • Map of evacuation routes – Image – detailing the location of the bomb blasts and safe evacuation routes
  • Evacuation route and transit updates – Video on Demand – video file detailing which roads are closed, official evacuation routes and updates, and how mass transit is impacted
  • Cellular network update – Text – A plea for people to please not try to make cell phone calls and to tweet, text or email instead (similar to the tweet that AT&T published, but it would have reached everyone, not just AT&T Twitter followers)
  • Shelter/Hospital Information – HTML Pages – Information detailing hospitals and/or shelters where people have been sent and the best ways to contact them and/or find your loved one
  • Google’s Person Finder – HTML Page – continually updated listing of information about individuals

In times of crisis, natural or man-made, M-EAS can get reliable information out to more people simultaneously than any other method.  M-EAS should be installed in every mobile phone.   Everyone – mobile phone users, carriers, government, and broadcasters – would benefit from such adoption.

AWARN Advisory Council