Wireless networks weather Irene, and two robots form linguistic hall of mirrors

A man checks his cellphone in Battery Park in Lower Manhattan, New York, August 28, 2011 as Hurricane Irene hits the city and Tri-State area with rain and high winds.

As Hurricane Irene headed for the East Coast, most people were preparing for the worst and hoping for the best. Indeed, the storm ended up causing severe damage in areas. There were fatalities, homes were lost, towns were flooded, roads were destroyed. Still, the devastation was not as widespread or severe as had been forecast. And for the most part, calls were able to go through on wireless networks. People were able to get through to 911. Internet connections worked. People on smartphones were able to stay in touch even if their power went out.

The latest stats, provided to us by the FCC yesterday afternoon, say: "In Vt., Conn., R.I. and Va., 44 percent, 35 percent, 31 percent, and 25 percent respectively of the cell sites in the disaster area are out of service. In N.C., the percentage of cell sites out of service has gone down from 14 percent to 11 percent from yesterday. No major switch is out of service.

Wireline: 210,700 customers out of service
Wireless: 6,500 cell sites down
TV: Two TV stations out of service
Cable: 1,000,000 customers out of service
Radio: 10 stations down"

Maggie Reardon is a senior writer at CNET. She says, "The big reason things went pretty well for cell phone networks this time is that the carriers were prepared. They had days in advance to prepare for this hurricane so they made sure cell towers had generators there. Power is a big issue for these cell towers because when the commercial power goes out, that means the cell phone towers cannot operate unless they have their own power right there."

"What we had seen in the past was maybe some places didn't have generators and they scrambled at the last minute to get generators to those places. This time some of the towers that don't have the generators there on a constant basis, they went and supplied them with those in advance of the storm. I think the carriers have learned a lot in the last several years dealing with some of these natural disasters, especially the ones they can prepare for like hurricanes."

Last week's earthquake on the East Coast was quickly followed by massive traffic on cell networks which crashed the system in many places. Calls just couldn't get through, they were like cars on a crowded freeway. But things were different in the hurricane, says Reardon, "It wasn't that there wasn't as much traffic on the network, but it wasn't at the same exact time. Cell phone networks are designed to withstand traffic, it's just when everyone is calling at the same exact moment, that's when the network gets a little crowded and people aren't able to get through."

Admiral Jamie Barnett is chief of the FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau. He says his agency is focusing on keeping all communications systems, not just cell phones, up and running in the event of a future emergency. "One of the things the FCC's very concerned about is making sure the people who need help immediately -- the people calling 911 -- are able to get through. Let me give you an example: We work very closely with FEMA. We sent four teams out -- we use what we call Roll Call. Roll Call unit goes out before the storm hits, does a quick snapshot of everything that's in use, radio, TV, police, etc. Then the storm comes through and we send them back again and they can take a quick snapshot again and tell which systems are down. So we knew very quickly after the storm had passed that there were certain public safety radio systems were out so we could get help to them right away."

Also in this program, researchers at Cornell, with perhaps a bit of extra time on their hands, decided to find out what would happen if two chatbots tried to chat together. Important scientific finding: things get pretty weird pretty fast.

About the author

John Moe is the host of Marketplace Tech Report, where he provides an insightful overview of the latest tech news.

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