Mobile Risks And Rewards In The Eye Of The Storm

For a concept that didn’t really exist a decade ago, we’ve certainly come to take mobile applications and access to the Internet for granted. As the eastern half of the U.S. settles in for a hurricane-soaked weekend at the conclusion of a week that has already included an earthquake, it’s worth a look at both the challenges and opportunities that exist for mobile technologies in times of crisis.

A generation of East Coasters is confronting a terrible situation in which should they lose electricity for an extended period of time, they’ll have to remember how to play Hearts or, worse yet, talk to their family or roommates. And those who work for mobile wireless companies could be in for a very long week should Ms. Irene pack the punch that weather forecasters anticipate. Yet this is also a chance for developers and companies to show how mobile technologies can be used to their greatest potential to actually improve the quality of life when a disaster strikes.

Here’s a few instances in which mobile can fall down, but where someone able to overcome the challenge could reap rewards even when the sun is shining.

Calling Capacity

The challenge: As we saw earlier this week with the Virginia earthquake that shook an enormous region, many people’s first instinct following a terrible shock is to let loved ones know that everything is fine. But when everyone in a given area tries to make a voice call at the same time, it’s extremely easy for cellular networks to become overwhelmed (which, of course, can also happen to landline networks).

The opportunity: Data networks, by comparison, held up fine in Japan during its horrible experience with an earthquake and tsunami. If more and more people start to realize that they can turn to voice options over data networks (which means those mobile apps will have to work reliably) on their phones in times of crisis, they’ll likely turn to them more often for everyday use.

The CTIA wireless trade group also used the voice-calling crunch that surrounded the earthquake to reiterate its need for the government to free up more wireless spectrum for carriers.

Battery Life

The challenge: The most remarkable piece of technology inside a modern mobile phone might actually be the battery, but it’s perhaps the most despised: there’s just never as much supply as you need when you need it. And few phones can make it through two days of regular usage, meaning a lot of people who have ditched their landlines might fall out of touch during an extended power outage (even sooner if they couldn’t resist playing Fruit Ninja to kill the time). The old-fashioned landline was the only thing that would always work when the power went out.

The opportunity: Mobile technology seems to go through a series of leapfrogging stages where phone performance demand surges ahead and battery life doesn’t follow suit immediately, only to watch performance demand surge again once it gets there. Most phones these days are sold on application availability and networking speed, and there could be a decent market for a phone maker who is really able to make a breakthrough on battery life while providing a good-enough application and web surfing experience.

Likewise, applications that are better at managing their need for resources (and therefore their drain on the battery) could become more attractive to phone makers and carriers trying to sell a long-lasting phone. Companies like the Weather Channel could do well by emphasizing that their mobile applications won’t run down your battery as fast as competitors and are the only apps you need to run in a crisis situation.

Network Reliability

The challenge: Wireless carrier technicians are about to have a crazy week. A storm of this size will affect everyone’s network to a certain degree, as there’s simply no way to predict how rain and wind will damage key cellular access points or how long it could take workers to reach hard-hit areas in order to make repairs. And this has the potential to screw up both voice and data connections, not to mention the more wide-ranging effects that could come from damage to centralized control points for wireless networks.

The opportunity: Can’t you just see “The Wireless Network You Can Trust When You Need It The Most” on a billboard in Times Square? Whichever one of the Big Four makes it through the weekend less scathed than its competitors, expect that company to remind its customers and frustrated customers at other networks how they performed in the midst of harrowing conditions.

There’s also a chance that this event, or future disasters, could lead to a push for greater network interoperability so that people can roam onto other networks to obtain vital information if their system goes down. The LTE standard was supposed to give the world that possibility, but it appears that the use of different frequencies across operators and phones could block that type of seamless back-and-forth, which has the added benefit (for the carriers) of locking a user into their network.