Meeting the challenge, like Bostonians

16 April 2013 by Steve Blum
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One moment calm and routine. The next, anything but.

It is an unfortunate fact of life that it takes a tragedy to show people at their best. Yesterday’s bomb attacks at the Boston Marathon did just that. The community responded instantly, selflessly and flawlessly. As a distance runner who has always wanted to do Boston, the sorrow of the day hit hard. But I was proud of the people in my sport and even prouder of the people who support it.

The industry that I’m part of – telecoms – played an important role. Mobile networks were slammed, but rolled with the punch and carried on. People at the scene experienced call blocking immediately after the explosions. It’s what you would expect when thousands of people in a small area start dialing at about the same time. The network congestion cleared up relatively quickly, within half an hour by some reports.

Six years ago, a freeway bridge collapsed in Minneapolis. People there jumped on a partially built muni WiFi network to communicate. Because it was new and lightly used, it probably performed better than the mobile networks at that moment. Work-arounds like WiFi do help.

The best advice I’ve heard, though, over the last few hours is if you’re in situation where the mobile networks are swamped, use text messaging. Texting needs very little bandwidth and is much more robust than voice or data because of it. If there’s no connection possible at the moment you push the send button, the phone will store the message and keep trying. One brief flash of connectivity is enough to send a text message on its way.

The problem, such as it is, is getting better, not worse. If something like this happened thirty years ago, people would have been lined up around the block waiting to use pay phones. The delay experienced by most people yesterday appears to have been relatively brief – a matter of minutes or less if they kept trying to connect. That’s frustrating at the time, but it shows that Boston’s networks are resilient enough to handle an extraordinary and tragic event without crashing. Almost as tough and resilient as its people.