Will California earthquakes move faster than mobile networks?

4 November 2018 by Steve Blum
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Earthquakes happen quickly, but not instantly. The shaking can last anywhere from a few seconds to more than a minute for a major quake. The shock waves spread out from the epicenter at something like the speed of sound, so it can be a few minutes before everything stops moving everywhere. The initial underground movement can also be detected by instruments before it’s felt on the surface.

Data networks, on the other hand, run at nearly the speed of light. So the right sensors combined with fast, smart computers and ubiquitous broadband coverage can give a few seconds of warning to people via smart phones. In the case of a massive 9.1 magnitude quake in Japan, where such a system is already in place, Tokyo residents had a minute and a half to prepare.

There are a couple of early earthquake warning systems under development in California. One is about to be tested by the City of Los Angeles, which partnered with AT&T to develop it after the project was put out to bid last year. Another system, developed by a private company, Early Warning labs, and the U.S. Geological Survey, is also nearing the test phase in California.

But there is a big if in those assumptions: mobile networks have to perform flawlessly for it all to work. There’s concern that Californian wireless networks are not up to the job, according to a Los Angeles Times article by Rong Gong Lin

Another big challenge faced by the system is how slow cellphone networks and other communications can be in transmitting warnings to the public. The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Wireless Emergency Alert system is not fast enough to support earthquake early warnings; there have been reports of tens of seconds to even minutes of delays in receiving such messages.

The government and phone carriers are working to improve speed, but an ideal fix could take years to implement.

5G technology, which is particularly designed to shorten data transmission times, will help. At least where it’s fully deployed. Communities that are lucky enough – affluent enough – to meet mobile carriers’ return on investment goals will see that happen over the next ten years. For everyone else, what you have is what you’ll get when the Big One hits.