As many of you know, last week Virginia was hit with a rare 6.0 earthquake. Naturally, millions of Americans, fearing for their loved ones, wanted to contact them through cell or landline calls. Being in Chicago, I, too, wanted to see how my wife and children were at home in Virginia, and attempted to contact them through both cell and landline. However, all circuits were busy, making it impossible to contact them with a voice call.
Thankfully, about an hour after the event, my wife called me from her cell to tell me everything was OK.
Sure, I wanted to get through as soon as I dialed. But, though I demand a lot of my communications tools, the outage did not seem unreasonable given the circumstance. We take technology for granted. Even in the most extreme conditions. But, as Arthur C. Clarke once noted, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
All things considered, our networks are pretty darned amazing – even though sometimes their magic is no match for Mother Nature.
Sadly, not all agree.
Leaving no crisis unexploited, the professional kvetchers at special interest group, Public Knowledge, had nothing but scorn for the wireless industry’s performance that day. According to PK’s John Bergmayer, the self-evident problem was “that carriers don’t design their networks to cope with peak usage” because “short-term thinking and other systematic incentives…cause carriers to underinvest in their networks.”
Sure, John. Underinvestment.
Of course, the cellular industry sees it differently. The Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA) reports that in 2010 alone U.S. providers made “capital investments totaling $24.9 billion, which was more than the providers in the 5 largest European countries (France, Germany, Italy, Spain and UK) spent combined ($17.9 billion, 2009).”
I’m sure it was this penny-pinching underinvestment – and not force majeure – that led network engineers at each one of the five leading carriers (not to mention numerous smaller ones) to short-sheet the network’s peak usage design characteristics. ‘Cuz, after all, U.S. wireless companies, evil as they are, really just want their customers to pay through the nose and suffer at the worst possible times.
My point here is simply this – it is easy to criticize when you have no stake in the game. When everything rests in the theoretical land of technological utopia, unchallenged by the uncontrollable force of nature and man’s sometimes irrational response to it.
Public Knowledge lives in that Na-Na Land. To them and their ilk, the men and women who run America’s communications networks can never do the job right no matter how hard they labor to serve the public interest. Working 24/7/365 in all types of conditions, manning hundreds of billions of dollars of private infrastructure to connect all manner of communications traffic, virtually without flaw, for 300 million Americans – well, that just isn’t good enough.
Good golly. Gimme a break.
I was actually inspired to write this post while driving back from Chicago on I-80 just before Irene hit last week. On the way back, I noticed convoy upon convoy of utility trucks heading not away from the trouble, but into it. To voluntarily serve fellow Americans in their time of need.
Others witnessed it, too. A friend of mine who doesn’t work in the communications industry posted this on her Facebook page Saturday:
To my friends on the East Coast: Just wanted to let you know that there are literally hundreds and hundreds of tree service and electrical line workers heading your way. Yesterday, as I was returning from Columbus, OH along I-70, I saw no fewer than 50 *convoys* of cherry-pickers heading East. Each convoy had maybe 10 trucks. Orange “Ashplundh” (sic) trucks will soon be in every neighborhood.
Thank goodness for those workers. Public Knowledge and their special interest friends should have the decency to grant praise where it’s due instead of crying like spoiled children.
As self-appointed trustees of the public interest, I did not notice a single bucket-truck operated by Public Knowledge (or other of their kin, like Free Press, New America Foundation, or Media Access Project) on the road toward Hurricane Irene. I did not hear how any one of those groups lifted lines, reconnected service, or helped other utilities get Americans back online during and after the storm.
Because groups like Public Knowledge do only one thing – and that is kvetch.
They take no risk. They offer no communications services. They operate no facilities that actually serve the public interest.
Rather, they are professional whiners. Nothing more.
The real trustees of the public interest drive those bucket-trucks. They should be saluted, not derided, for their public service.