East Coast cell coverage has problems, Facebook has new privacy controls

A woman tries to find cell phone service August 23, 2011 in Lower Manhattan, New York after an earthquake centered in Virginia was felt in the New York area causing the evacuation of buildings.

As unpredictable as the quake was, the collapse of cell coverage was completely predictable. A whole lot of people fired up their phones and hopped on Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile or Sprint, some of them doing so before the ground was even done shaking. But a lot of those calls didn't go through. The system couldn't handle the volume. Spokespeople for AT&T and T-Mobile were quoted in the New York Times as saying that there didn't appear to be any damage to towers but there was just a lot of traffic coming across the networks.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, advised people to stay off cell phone lines unless it was an emergency.

Here it is, almost 10 years after 9/11, a vast majority of Americans now have cell phones, but we still haven't figured out a reliable way for people to make calls during an emergency.

We talk to Drew Clark of BroadbandBreakfast.com. "I was sitting in my backyard," he says, "And we felt the earthquake come through and we weren't able to make calls on a variety of networks, but I was posting on Facebook, tweeting, sending emails and there were no interruptions on those networks, even though I'm using the same cell network for the tweets and Facebook posts as you would be using if you're making a phone call."

Data, he says, just travels better than a voice call can. As for whether we'll ever see a cell phone system that can take a large volume of calls, Clark is dubious: "The simple answer why they can't just build it is because they'd be building a network 10 times or 100 times larger than needed on any given day. You fall back to cost benefits and economics."

Also in this program, Facebook has new privacy features. Yes yes, we've heard this song before. Great big social networking company gives the user more options in managing privacy but those controls are so unwieldy and hard to find that most people never use them.

But this one might be different. Whereas before, anyone could tag you in a picture that goes up on Facebook without your knowledge or permission, now you'll get a chance to approve anything before it goes live. You can also decide who will see a given post before you post it, those controls are clickable right next to the post itself.

Ryan Calo is the director of the Consumer Privacy Project at Stanford's Center for Internet and Society. As for the Facebook experience, he says, "I think it changes it a lot. People are really going to finally get some much better and easier control. One of things I really like, for instance, and this is an old feature, but surfaced -- is the See Profile As feature. Once upon a time you had to log out to see what people could see on your profile. Or you had to click around to find this feature. Now, just on your home page, you can see what your profile looks like to others. If you're worried about a job interview, or date, you can see what people see on your profile and know that you're safe or not."

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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