Hurricane Sandy, Day 7: 1-800 HELP IS ON THE WAY? And Voice Still Really Matters


For those of you who don’t live in the Northeastern part of the United States, thank you for your continued well wishes. Thank you also for indulging my proclivity at the moment to indulge in some reflection on what happened, and on what surely is going to be a “new normal” on so many fronts, it seems too overwhelming to catalog.

That said, with a week of Sandy aftermath now under the belt, it seems like a reasonable time to take a bit of stock with a few observation. 

Please note there is no rank order intended or implied, and pardon the ramble.

Rethinking the telecom infrastructure

A few days ago, I praised Verizon Wireless for enabling me to stay in touch with my loved ones throughout the ordeal. (BTW, while the New York area still has over 1.2 million customers without power as I write this, I feel blessed that my and my wife’s immediate family as of late last night now all have power, and again thank all of you for asking). Yes, some of the cell towers did not have back-up generation and the industry should stop fighting the FCC on making this a requirement. Yes, a critical Verizon switching center in downtown New York was flooded causing service disruption. 

However, given the relative lack of preparedness and responsiveness of the electric utilities around here, the wired telecom providers (cable and telecom), and particularly the wireless ones, have performed admirably. 

As someone whose career has been marked by criticizing service providers, I should say – with an eye toward hopefully getting them to improve customer experiences – I do believe recognition should be paid. 

What has been interesting to me in driving around and looking at cell towers is not so much the lack of back-up fossil fuel generators, but the lack of alternative energy sources. We’re living through a significant gas shortage at the moment, and stories are rampant of the extent to which public safety people and utilities are going to assure the supplies needed just to keep their trucks rolling and generators still working. In fact, for those of you unfamiliar with what’s happening on the ground here, one of the things that has been stunting the ability to get gasoline flowing again has been the fact that many of the gas stations in the area and fueling depots either have generators but no gas, but more stunningly do not have the ability to use generators for electrical hook-up reasons.

Many actually have gas but can’t pump it under power is restored. 

As part of the rethinking about emergency preparedness of the communications infrastructure going forward the height at which generators are placed, their accessibility and reliance on alternative energy sources are also going to have to be re-evaluated. This is going to be particularly important as next-generation networks rely more and more on small cell deployments where access to power and reliable backhaul will be dominant citing concerns along obviously with traffic considerations. 

On the wired side of things, the issue of aerial versus buried when it comes to cabling is now on the table. In Mahwah, NJ, for example, the main feeder cable for their entire school district campus is buried. This is power as well as communications. An underground transformer blew and was so hot it melted the street above, and the entire infrastructure. Power and communications redundancy for critical public assets – public safety offices, schools, libraries, pumping stations, etc. – are going to be revisited. 

It’s a challenge to get the word out when the words are incapable of being created or communicated.

Back to wireless. Things like adjusting the diversity of routes from cell sites by using microwave radio to home on towers that are working, is something folks in the San Francisco area learned was important for disaster recovery during their major earthquake several years ago.

Thinking about the importance of 800 Service

Thinking about infrastructure also got me thinking about what it delivers. This came into sharp relief last week when every call I attempted to make to an 800 number from our office was greeted with, “we are sorry, all carrier circuits are busy right now, please try back later.” 

I was puzzled. I knew that the 800 number data base, used for translating those numbers in to POTs numbers via a special part of the signaling network, while administered in North Dakota is widely distributed and has always seemed very resilient. However, “How could the whole thing be out? And, why isn’t this making national news?” I wondered. 

Let’s face it: in the U.S., from teleconferencing services to e-commerce to speaking to a utility or insurance company representative, this country relies on 800 services. 

Indeed, if this disaster did nothing else than highlight just how dependent the U.S. is on 800 service as a foundational part of our economy that needs to be “hardened” to present both natural disaster issues as well as cyber attacks, this should be a wakeup call. In the instance of me not being able to make a call from the office, it turned out that I could on my mobile phone and thus the problem was one with our service provider Cablevision. 

It was back to normal in a day, fortunately.

The question I have, that if those in charge would like to have me write a feature story on it would be my pleasure, is how resilient is the 800 service infrastructure? As any call center in the tri-state area what their volumes have looked like in the past few days. The traffic has been staggering and the wait times, through no fault of anyone given the level of destruction and the need for information, have been extremely long. 

And since patience is not necessary considered a virtue in our part of the world, it’s fair to say that things are getting a bit testy. 

I will leave this one under the category of, “inquiring minds want to know,” and look forward to enlightenment on the subject of 800 service resilience. This is something which unlike the service we cannot and should not be taking for granted.

It is still about Voice      

I realize that in the age of social media, being an advocate of the criticality of voice might put me in the category of be “quaint” to some people. I have just a few closing observations that happen to relate to this topic. 

First, watching the pleas of people on television for somebody to come help them in the areas that were most affected has been heart-breaking. And while the world rightly is going IP and hence VoIP, getting the whole E911 thing right, i.e., if I am in trouble and dial 911 they will find me, should have just become more of a national priority. The U.S. has certainly been making progress on this front in the past few years, but it remains the soft under-belly of VoIP, and a critical factor for businesses taking a holistic look at risk management challenges. 

As Sandy has highlighted, whether it is me talking to my loved ones, businesses talking to their employees, supply chains and customers, or government officials and public safety people talking with each other or broadcasting alerts to citizens, the facts are irrefutable that voice matters. 

We may be witnessing the death of the PSTN in the U.S. in the next few years, but what the past week highlights starkly is that the policy-makers and the industry had best keep universal voice communications as a top priority as we transition, or they will certainly bear the wrath of an angry populace when the next disaster like this occurs.

I did not mean to end this on such an alarmist note. However, Hurricane Sandy has stripped away and laid bare of inspection very important things to be addressed. Not the least of which of these is assuring that the U.S. has a communications infrastructure in place that can/should/must do better the next time, and is capable of warding off natural as well as human attacks.This a part of the new normal that had best give everyone pause. Business as usual will not be an acceptable answer.

Yes, the next generation of new services is something all of our vendors should be investing in. But when it comes to improving the customer experience, nothing should take a back seat to being ready when those critical calls start coming.

I am sure I will be returning to this and related subjects in the weeks and months ahead. I would appreciate and look forward to your thoughts.  

Edited by Braden Becker
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