The problem with mobiles in emergencies…

Is that they often don’t work.

This photo of my mobile phone’s screen was taken around two and a half hours after a powerful bomb rocked Nugegoda, a suburb in Colombo, killing around 17 and injured over 30. It was Sri Lanka’s second bomb for the day. I live around 3 minutes away from the place where the bomb went off in Nugegoda and had just returned home when I heard the sound of the explosion.

Notice the icon between battery power level indicator and the Bluetooth icon? It’s been like that for the past two hours.

I received three SMS news alerts on the Nugegoda incident between 6pm – 7pm. One from JNW, two from Ada Derana. At 9.08pm I received 7 SMS’s in quick succession (possibly after network congestion eased up) from both JNW and Ada Derana, with updates on casualties and news that all schools in the Western Province were to be closed on the 29th and 30th.

However, for around two hours after the bomb went off in Nugegoda, not a single SMS went out from my phone. Also from 6pm to 8pm, not a single call (to mobile as well as land lines) I tried was patched through. While I was able to sporadically get messages, incoming and outgoing voice and outgoing SMS communications were completely off the air.

Thought there’s been more than a little emphasis on the potential of mobiles to help emergency response and facilitate the dissemination of vital news and information during emergencies in Sri Lanka, my own experience suggests that there is still some way to go before we can rely on them completely as devices resilient to sudden surges in network traffic. However, as the first images from the incident demonstrate, mobiles increasingly used by eye witnesses and even victims to record the incident through camera phone photos.

As some countries have priority to emergency response SMSs, I wonder if the same be done with news alerts, given that their use / subscriber base seems to be expanding with new Sinhala and Tamil based SMS news services entering the market?

What did you experience when you tried to send an SMS or call today or an emergency in the past?

P.S. Interestingly, my usually glacial paced ADSL connection from SLT (the Nugegoda exchange can’t be more than 50m from where the bomb went off) worked perfectly throughout the incident. Bizarrely, I got a data rate of around 215Kb/s at around 7pm, which is about the rate I get on Sundays and Public Holidays. Can’t figure that one out – maybe everybody in Nugegoda offices just logged off and scrambled home?

11 Comments on “The problem with mobiles in emergencies…”

  1. Ken Banks
    November 28, 2007 at 11:13 pm #

    Hi Sanjana

    A couple of years ago, during the UK London bombings, the same thing happened. The networks got totally hammered, not just by people trying to call and SMS out from the vacinity of the bombings, but by worried friends and family frantically trying to call loved ones to check they were safe. Because of the cell nature of GSM networks, only a limited number of lines are available at any one time. Your assertion that we’re still some way off from a robust, reliable emergency response system is correct.

    Interestingly, mobile networks have a built-in broadcast system which very few seem to use. It’s called “cell broadcast”, and it’s not available to subscribers but does allow them to send messages to mobiles registered with certain towers, i.e. in a certain area. In theory, in the event of an emergency they could temporarily shut down access to those towers and blast a message. I’m not sure why this isn’t being looked at – maybe someone can tell me?

  2. Haren
    November 29, 2007 at 12:12 am #

    Could the military have jammed/restricted mobile phone communication channels as an immediate response to the bomb blasts?

  3. Sanjana Hattotuwa
    November 29, 2007 at 5:30 pm #

    Ken,

    Your question is precisely what I asked albeit in the content of a different emergency – see http://ict4peace.wordpress.com/2007/09/13/sms-alerts-during-emergencies-lessons-from-sri-lankas-tsuanmi-alert-on-13-september-2007/

    Partly in response, the person responsible for Sri Lanka’s first mobile / SMS news service wrote a post on his experiences in emergency communications here – http://www.groundviews.org/2007/09/13/sms-news-alerts-during-emergencies-the-experience-of-jnw-and-the-tsunami-warning-of-13th-september-2007/. Read the ensuing discussion for some interesting points that may go some way in answering your question, at least from a Sri Lankan perspective.

    Warmest,

    Sanjana

  4. Sanjana Hattotuwa
    November 29, 2007 at 5:33 pm #

    Hi Ken,

    One more thing – totally empathise with having loved ones trying to communicate to ascertain whether all’s well. What was terribly frustrating yesterday was that some of their SMS’s came through, but there was no way in which I could respond save for emails. If I had Skype, I could have sent them SMS’s using the programme and hoped for faster delivery (has anyone tried this) but unfortunately, Skype does not work with Leopard, Apple’s new operating system that I have installed on my Mac. It was weird – I had ‘net connectivity and could send emails, but was totally cut off from those that mattered to me the most.

    SH

  5. Sanjana Hattotuwa
    November 29, 2007 at 5:34 pm #

    Haren,

    For a number of reasons, I doubt it very much that the military had anything to do at all with the collapse of the mobile network.

    Sanjana

  6. Haren
    November 30, 2007 at 1:18 am #

    Sanjana,
    The reason i asked that question is because i initially perceived this to be a problem with such a simple solution, that it shouldn’t even be a problem anymore. let me explain.
    I do not know whether SMS traffic and voice traffic share the same infrastructure and bandwidth in mobile phone networks. If they do, a sudden surge in voice calls may clog the network and result in a ‘denial of service’, but if not, it is hard to imagine how SMS traffic could reach volumes that would block the network for any more than a few minutes.
    A possible – and simple – solution would be for the network to dedicate a reasonable amount of bandwidth for SMS traffic during an emergency – or any eventuality that causes the network to be congested beyond normal levels. SMS traffic – due to its far lighter burden on the network, would at least guarantee a minimum level of communication until the congestion eases.

  7. chamath
    December 24, 2007 at 11:31 am #

    An in-depth study of SMS bandwidth and network usage during an emergency and the pro’s and con’s of SMS delivery versus voice calls would be very handy (if anyone has seen such a study, very grateful for the link)
    Haren’s suggestion to allocate bandwidth for it sounds very interesting. Haren are you closely involved in this area in your work?

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. humanitarian.info » The trouble with mobile phones when a bomb goes off… - November 29, 2007

    […] off just down the road from Sanjana’s home, killing 17 people and injuring 30. Sure enough, the mobile network went down immediately after the explosion: However, for around two hours after the bomb went off in Nugegoda, not a single SMS went out from […]

  2. ICT for Disaster Management: Thoughts on the APDIP e-primer by Chanuka Wattegama « ICT for Peacebuilding (ICT4Peace) - December 23, 2007

    […] On pg. 11, Chanuka mentions the potential of SMS and states that “…SMS works on a different band and can be sent or received even when phone lines are congested. SMS also has another advantage over voice calls in that one message can be sent to a group simultaneously.” While technically accurate and in some cases a proven way to alert others of a disaster / crisis, it seems to be the case that SMSs are also significant affected by network congestion, as was quite clearly brought out in my own experience in attempting to use SMS in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. […]

  3. ICT4Peace in 2007: Significant work, applied research and challenges « ICT for Peacebuilding (ICT4Peace) - December 31, 2007

    […] One of my most read posts this year was one in which, using the experience of a bomb that killed 30 that went off close to my residence, I pointed out the trappings of using SMSs to communicate in emergencies. […]

  4. Sahana SMS Module - Thoughts and suggestions « ICT for Peacebuilding (ICT4Peace) - May 14, 2008

    […] to date have been made on the actual performance of the system that for the moment runs on Dialog. My experience with SMS communications last year after a bombing close to home suggests that SMS is also prone to congestion that can last for hours, though a technical agreement […]

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