One of the many signs of how dependent we’ve all become on constant connectivity is that, even in the face of natural disasters and other emergencies, people count on their mobile and other connected devices to just work.
For first responders and others who faithfully go to work in these types of situations, the need for such communications is obvious as they work to coordinate and organize their efforts. Even for regular consumers, however, the ability to reach out to friends and family, to get updates on the situation, or even just to do the kinds of things they do on typical days—like checking social media feeds or listening to music—can provide a degree of normalcy that can be very calming during stressful times.
As with many aspects of our societal infrastructure, the amount of work that has to be done behind-the-scenes to be certain that things like mobile networks can function in virtually any situation is significantly more than most realize. In addition, the amount of equipment, people, processes, and more that power these disaster recovery scenarios is much broader than most would expect.
I was able to find some of this out first-hand thanks to a recent tour of AT&T facilities in the New Orleans area as part of a special week of NCAA Final Four activities. Given the range of storms and other major weather events that the area has famously had to endure, it was a fascinating place to showcase the types of facilities, equipment, and processes that a company like AT&T needs to maintain to be prepared for most any kind of situation.
At an equipment yard located next to one of the company’s many central offices (COs), for example, they highlighted everything from generators, forklifts, portable bunks, and amphibious vehicles to various forms of standalone, portable cellular network rigs. As Sr. Vice President Scott Mair, the executive in charge of the company’s networks, explained, they’re all part of a well-established and experience-driven set of capabilities that the company has been developing for decades now. In fact, the company’s Network Disaster Recovery organization was started in 1992 and includes leaders that were first responders for 9/11.
The portable network rigs AT&T has created, in particular, are intriguing examples of how they’ve been able to create solutions that can be deployed in a wide range of environments and situations. Unlike many other Cellular on Wheels (or COW) systems that carriers around the world will use to do things like supplement network coverage at a special event, the systems AT&T demonstrated are completely self-sufficient. They are powered by generators (onboard or external) and do not require a physical connection to an existing network.
The smaller of the two designs, which the company calls a Compact Rapid Deployable (CRD), fits on a mobile cart that not only works outside but can also fit through doors and onto elevators so that it can be moved inside as well. Despite its compact size, it can create a standalone 4G LTE network with about a 2-mile range that supports up to 50 users.
The larger design, referred to as a SatCoLT (short for Satellite Cellular on Light Truck), is essentially built onto a self-sufficient small truck and supports over 100 users across a roughly 3-mile range thanks to an extendible 60-foot antenna. Both designs leverage a standard geosynchronous satellite backhaul connection (new models with LEO—low earth orbit—satellites are in the works), which allows them to connect with the existing cellular network. AT&T has a small fleet of each type deployed around the US, with an emphasis on areas that have a history of weather-related challenges, but also spread out such that virtually any spot in the continental US is no more than about a 6-hour drive away.
In addition to equipment, the company has a dedicated team of workers to maintain, manage, and deploy it all. Interestingly, they also leverage a large group of trained volunteers who are willing to help out in the case of an emergency. AT&T representatives explained that the company often is able to recruit volunteers in areas where they’ve previously done some of these deployments—a noble and noteworthy example of people wanting to give back.
Directly related to these disaster recovery efforts is the company’s work on FirstNet, a dedicated first responder network created via congressional mandate in 2012. AT&T won the US government contract to run the FirstNet network, which leverages a unique, dedicated set of RF spectrum that was specifically set aside by for first responders, in 2017. The company’s smaller portable rigs are dedicated to FirstNet applications (though anyone can use them to make 911 calls in the areas where they are set up), while the SatCoLTs can handle both FirstNet and regular network calls or data requests for anyone in range.
Like insurance, emergency preparedness isn’t a particularly exciting or enjoyable topic, but given how critical our mobile networks have become, it’s important to point out how much time and energy goes into the hidden efforts that AT&T (and other carriers) are making. Admirably (and fortunately for us all), the people working on these efforts seem to have a real passion and sense of mission for emergency preparedness. It’s not something they want to have to use, but it’s good to know it’s there.
Disclosure: TECHnalysis Research is a tech industry market research and consulting firm and, like all companies in that field, works with many technology vendors as clients, some of whom may be listed in this article.