Cellular technology undoubtedly proved its usefulness after 9/11 when many landlines simply didn’t work in the Northeast. First responders and civilians alike were able to connect via cellular networks much more reliably. But cell systems are not infallible, and Hurricane Michael was the most recent evidence that relying on a cell network in the midst of a disaster situation can put your life at risk. The importance of constant communications access is one of the reasons my family owns a satellite phone.
Even a week after Hurricane Michael made landfall, nearly half of Bay County Florida’s cell sites were still offline. Sarah Krouse reports in The Wall Street Journal:
Persistent cellular site outages after Hurricane Michael left many first responders and residents of Panama City, Fla., unable to reach loved ones or those in need of help for several days, drawing the ire of some government officials.
Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, said earlier this week that carriers’ slow progress in restoring service where Michael made landfall was “completely unacceptable.”
Mr. Pai directed the agency’s public service and homeland security bureau to open an investigation.
A week after the storm made landfall, nearly half—47% as of 11 a.m. on Thursday—of cell sites in Bay County, Fla., which includes Panama City and Mexico Beach, remained out of service, according to the FCC. That is a slower recovery than many recent major storms other than Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico last year and left many residents without cellphone service for months.
Robert Gysi, a 30-year-old resident of Panama City, evacuated during the storm, but noticed his Verizon Communications Inc. wireless service went out as he crossed back into Bay County on his return home last Thursday.
In June of 2015, the Department of Homeland Security outlined the uses of satellite phones in its System Assessment and Validation for Emergency Responders (SAVER) Program. They wrote:
Satellite mobile phones utilize satellites to communicate with landline, cellular, or other satellite phones in most regions of the world. Responders use satellite mobile phones for emergency communications in order to coordinate response and recovery efforts in remote areas, where there are no landline or cellular telephone networks, or in areas where existing networks are damaged or overloaded during a natural disaster (e.g., severe weather or earthquake) or a man-made incident, including potential chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, or explosive events. Satellite mobile phones can help maintain command and control functions during an emergency when existing communications networks are not functioning. These phones are designed to be relatively rugged and simple to operate, but are more expensive than cell phones to buy and use.
Read the entire report in the PDF here.