As the Boston Marathon bombings unfolded, thousands of anxious people in the region pulled out their mobile phones to connect with friends and family—and found that calls couldn’t be placed or received. Rumors that officials had shut down these mobile networks for security reasons weren’t true. The system was simply overloaded at a time when people needed it most.
Similar problems are likely to arise in the aftermath of other attacks or natural disasters such as earthquakes, when networks are overwhelmed by an instantaneous, acute need for large numbers of people to communicate at once. Our day-to-day communications networks aren’t always geared to scale up in emergencies. At these times, some citizens and companies need help, and others are eager to help—and all need to communicate. With some emerging technologies and a little advance coordination, we can harness our civic instinct to come together in times of crisis to keep data flowing.
We can start with an idea that needs no additional technology. Many people and companies operate Wi-Fi access points. Each of these points—whether used by apartment roommates, Starbucks patrons, or cell subscribers who get Wi-Fi “off-load” from their service providers—is connected to the Internet and often remains so even if cellular voice and data towers are out or overloaded.
These are tremendous potential resource. They could be preconfigured to allow their owners to quickly fling their digital doors wide in times of trouble, channeling a surge of traffic through broadband with a capacity naturally greater than that of cellular networks. The same folks who contemplated rushing to a hospital to give blood, or merchants who deplete their stores of bottled water without fretting about the cost, can share their network access in a way that can make a huge difference to fellow citizens in distress.
More ambitiously, recall that citizens in the midst of an emergency without working cell service still possess, in their smartphones and laptops, two-way radios that make their cell and Wi-Fi services function. So-called ad hoc networking technology can bind these radios together during times of crisis, creating a network that could be useful even if no one within it had access to the broader Internet. Imagine seeing your phone’s signal bars drop to zero. Instead of “No service,” the phone could fall back to “Connected to local network” and enable short but critical communications to people in the general vicinity to request help, check on someone’s welfare, or find food and shelter—perhaps using pre-saved credentials from services like Facebook and Twitter to communicate with friends and followers even when those services’ websites are inaccessible.
Such short inquiries and text-like messages are no substitute for full-blown mobile or Internet access, but they can help immeasurably during a crisis. And the brevity of communication within this kind of local network can potentially help it scale without failing under the weight of too many people trying to find one another at once. (At the same time, a Defense Department research project is challenging researchers to make higher-bandwidth ad hoc networks function for thousands of people.)
When professional responders are performing their vital jobs but others cannot easily communicate, these approaches can empower citizens, not-for-profits, and companies, helping them communicate and possibly provide other necessary assistance. In this mutual aid configuration, the more people affected, the more possibilities there are for those people to contribute resources, helping create a disruption-tolerant, delay-tolerant network—a form of scaling that is impractical for the traditional model.
Our argument isn’t that the approach will solve the problem completely. The FCC, other agencies, and the private sector need to continue to work on improving network reliability, resilience, and capacity.
But natural disasters and other crises aren’t going away, even as our dependence upon instant communications grows. Whether in the United States or elsewhere in the world—where we have seen authoritarian governments seek to disrupt traditional communications when they fear their own publics—mainstream consumer hardware and software can become a foundation for resilient interaction among people during a crisis and an innovative part of the solution to this very real challenge.
Julius Genachowski is former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. Jonathan Zittrain is professor of law and professor of computer science at Harvard University, where he cofounded its Berkman Center for Internet & Society.