April Roundup: A Challenging Month for Communication Networks in Disasters

The tragedies last week in China, Boston, Iran and Pakistan, and the flooding in Buenos Aires earlier this month underscore the dependence that affected communities and emergency response agencies place on mobile networks to communicate with loved ones and coordinate relief. During crises, mobile networks are vulnerable to a variety of challenges ranging from congestion to infrastructural damage, as illustrated below.

Lushan Earthquake, Sichuan Province, China

Just after 8 AM CST on April 20th, a magnitude 7 earthquake struck the Lushan County in the city of Ya’an, Sichuan Province of China. Current UN estimates suggest that over 1.5 million people are affected regionally, with 186 deaths and over 11,000 injured. Images coming out of the region depict houses reduced to rubble, whilst rescue workers attempt to access remote and hard to reach areas to help those trapped and provide relief. The communications networks in the area have been impacted, as have commercial power infrastructure, with approximately 279 mobile base stations damaged and taken off line. As of Sunday afternoon, services were being partially restored by the three major telecoms providers (China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom), and all three have announced free calls, text messages and roaming for disaster-affected people in the region. According to reports, China Telecom sent 900 maintenance works, 45 emergency comms vehicles and other restoration and back-up equipment. China Mobile has dispatched ~200 technicians, and China Unicom has sent 300 maintenance workers and four communication vehicles to the region.

Sadly, catastrophic earthquakes are not new to Sichuan province. In 2008, an earthquake which killed or left missing more than 80,000 people also rendered communication networks unusable. More than 2,300 base stations (providing an estimated half of the provinces communication) were affected by a combination of infrastructure damage, congestion and power failures. Since then, mobile operators in the country have been bolstering their capacity to facilitate swift response and restoration. According to Li Jun of China Mobile, the company had “been preparing and upgrading our emergency plans to deal with events since the Wenchuan earthquake. The emergency restoration plan was designed for such disasters.”

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Iran-Pakistan Earthquake

Last Tuesday 16 April, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck near the Iran-Pakistan border. Initial reports suggested a death toll in the thousands, but these were quickly dispelled by officials, again highlighting the critical need for access to credible information and communication during disasters. Tremors were felt as far as Dubai, and an estimated 5,000 people have been impacted in the border area, with the brunt of damage and collapsed homes occurring on the Pakistani side. Reports from our communication with Telenor Pakistan indicate that the networks have not been substantially impacted; however, corporate response plans have been operationalized. Like China, Pakistan experiences a variety of frequent, high magnitude disasters. In response, Telenor Pakistan has channeled close to 140 million Rupees towards emergency relief and response between 2009 and 2012.

Earthquakes pose a particular set of challenges for mobile networks, and many operators around the world are seeking guidance on building stronger preparedness and response strategies in order to cope with the threat of “mega-urban” earthquakes in particular. The GSMA Disaster Response Programme will be holding a 2.5 day workshop in the Philippines in June specifically focused on responding to this challenge, and will convene operators from around the world to share their expertise and experience in responding to recent earthquakes in Japan, China, Chile, Turkey and elsewhere. For more information, please email [email protected].

Boston Marathon, Massachusetts, U.S.

Mobile operators came under fire following the tragedy at the Boston Marathon on Monday 15 April last week. Despite boosting capacity to accommodate the anticipated influx of caller density along the marathon route, networks were temporarily unable to cope with the increased volume of calls after the bombings as congestion prevented many from getting calls through. There was initial speculation that coverage had been limited in the area around the bombs to prevent the possibility of an additional detonation, but this has been disputed by all carriers. According to a Verizon spokesperson, “Verizon Wireless has not been asked by any government agency to turn down its wireless service. Any reports to that effect are inaccurate.”  Congestion management remains a challenge for operators in emergencies, as they must balance prioritisation of emergency response agencies with managing surges in call volumes across subscribers. Call blocking (where a caller must make two or three attempts, but does eventually connect) was reported, but these challenges were resolved swiftly. Operators also advised customers to text or email rather than call as these mediums were being largely delivered without delay via Twitter, news agencies and press releases, and some extended wifi services in the affected area to support communications. Analysts have been discussing the importance of building flexible networks and alternative routing models in order to prevent similar congestion issues, however CEO of RootMetric, Bill Moore argued that “wireless carriers would have to invest potentially billions of dollars to upgrade networks to handle every tidal wave of traffic that would follow an event like Monday’s bombing — such an investment  would not be practical.”

For more information:

Flash Flooding, La Plata and Buenos Aires, Argentina

In early April, flash flooding in La Plata and Buenos Aires Argentina destroyed over 100,000 homes. Cuts in commercial power, call volume and flooding impacted the mobile networks. According to news reports, the Government of Argentina plans to impose heavy fines on mobile operators for network failures during the flooding and is preparing to introduce new legislation around restoration of services.

The GSMA Disaster Response programmes works with the mobile industry to improve its capacity to respond to natural disasters and complex emergencies through the sharing of best practices, lessons and bolstered coordination strategies. The events of the past weeks highlight the centrality of mobile networks for supporting emergency response and allowing those affected to reach loved ones, access information and call for help. These events also raise the challenge for mobile operators in balancing investments in preparedness and the creation of strong internal response capacity for unforeseen tragedies.

Photo: By Aaron “tango” Tang from Cambridge, MA, USA (Uploaded by russavia) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons