As of writing this, the devastating Christchurch quake that wreaked so much havoc and caused so many deaths and injuries is still on everyone’s mind. All my friends and acquaintances there are safe - some with houses in pieces, and not quite sure what to do next - and not hurt, thank goodness.
In finding out what had happened to one good friend whose house was approximately 1.5 kilometres from the epicentre, I had what can only be described as a totally contemporary moment. As you can imagine, my friend’s communications were all severed after the quake. No phones, no email.
I asked on Twitter if any of my followers were in the vicinity, and if so, could they perhaps go and check on my friend. Two people responded, but I didn’t hear back from either. Apparently, their mobile phones ran out of battery power.
Google set up the People Finder site that does exactly what the name says, and I posted the details of my friend there. That unexpectedly brought me into contact with other people around the world also worried about my friend.
In the end, I emailed a mutual acquaintance in the UK at the publication my friend used to work for, and heard that he was fine. The acquaintance had been in touch with a colleague of my friend’s in Australia, who in turn had informed her that my friend was fine and their house stood up to the big shake.
Next, I passed on that information to people in various other parts of the world and couldn’t help thinking that again, the Internet has shown what a marvellously powerful tool it is and how much good it can do. And yes, I’ve finally heard from my friend, who now has email access again.
Unlike just a few years ago, I’m not in a minority in thinking that the Internet is a crucial communications channel, which is a relief. Our telcos and ISPs active in the region pulled out all stops to restore service in Christchurch, and they’ve done marvellous work.
Thanks to them, people can now avail themselves of official government sites and volunteer ones such as eq.org.nz and business.eq.org.nz to find information as well as seek and offer help.
Here, I’d like to extend special thanks to Brother’s NZ operation for offering printers to eq.org.nz. The site alone is a great resource, but as Chad Catacchio, co-lead of CrisisCommons Community Working Group (he was also involved in the web-based Ushahidi crisis crowdsourcing of assistance and resource during the Haiti quake) says: ”a printed map not only doesn’t require data, it doesn’t require a battery and also, paper maps are universally understood.„
Fast communications and increased information sharing should help Christchurch recover quicker and more efficiently; to what extent I can’t tell yet, but there’s no doubt in my mind that internetworking is beneficial in disasters.
However, I’m not convinced that we’re doing enough to build resilient networks in disaster-prone areas. This is a question of how much you want to spend, of course, but it does seem silly that people with wireless phones couldn’t use them when mains power disappeared. Not because the wireless handsets didn’t work, but because there were no rechargeable batteries in the base stations.
Since the 48-50V DC and low current phone lines are supposed to disappear as we move to fibre-optic networking over the next decade, this is now becoming an urgent problem to solve. Do we insist on each property having power storage capacity, and for how long? Six hours? Twelve? A whole day?
Apart from power issues, the asymmetric nature of NZ’s broadband is a real hindrance towards recovery. Your company may have had a nice fat pipe to the outside world in the now destroyed office building, but what if you had to temporarily relocate to somewhere served by DSL only to keep the business alive?
You’d be limited to 5-800kbps upstream speeds. Try backing up your data to the cloud with those speeds and serving customers, sending email, and more. Sadly, the government’s Ultra Fast Broadband network designers seem to be thinking in DSL terms with asymmetric bandwidth that’s shared with many users so don’t expect this to improve any time soon.
We really need to recognise that disasters will strike and that we need to be prepared in every way possible to deal with them. This includes our communications networks: they have to be resilient without single points of power failure, and enjoy route diversity.