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65,000 Hippies Trump AT&T

Like most every other Monday morning, I’m on a plane. Different from most flights is this week’s assortment of passengers. Rather than 68 Blackberry-wielding folks dressed in business casual attire heading into Silicon Valley, many of the passengers on this flight have green or pink hair, tattoos, dreadlocks, and a clever logo’d t-shirt from this place or this place. Why the difference? I’m returning from the Austin City Limits music festival in Austin, Texas. For three days 65,000 music lovers take over Zilker park to watch some 130 bands perform, and to pay $6 for “organic” flavored shaved ice from their fair, friendly, non-opportunistic local businesses.

At events like this, a close second to the music (Devotchka, the Gotan Project, and the Decemberists were amazing) as entertainment goes is the people watching. There was a very convincing Billy Idol impersonator strutting and handing out business cards, a confused-looking elderly bearded man surgically enhanced with an ample bosom and real goat horns embedded in the sides of his head, and a guy with an honest to goodness mullett. But other than these noteworthy stand-outs, it’s really more crowd-watching than people-watching. Amid the stochastic seas of people migrating from one stage to another between hour long sets, there were some observable routines: circles of obviously too-well-practiced hackysackers; modern hippies in altered states dancing as if trying to conjure something from the netherworld; ladies waiting in queue for a porta-potty, entering, and immediately exiting in disgust because of its squalidness. But the single most commonly observable behavior was people opening their mobile phone, hitting a few buttons, closing it, opening it, shaking it, hitting a few more buttons, putting it to their ear, looking at it with disdain, lifting it up and hitting buttons with it held aloft, lowering it to waist-height and pivoting in a 110 degree scanning-pattern like it was a tricorder, and finally putting it back in a pocket with a look of frustrated exasperation.

Total mobile network oversaturation, due, at least in part, to the amplifying effect of the common human behavior of unmercifully pounding the “send/retry” button when communications attempts fail. During the event, voicemail notifications would arrive without being preceeded by an incoming call. Attempts to retrieve a voicemail, or to place a voice call of any sort would fail. Efforts to send email or retrive a web-page would timeout or fail with a “no data service” message. Text messages (SMS) would often need to be resent multiple times, and when successfully sent to someone else at the event would often arrive only after prolonged delays. Ironically, the event’s main sponsor was AT&T. Maybe next year ACL organizers could look for a CDMA sponsor for comparison.

But this isn’t a rant against a particular telecommunication company or mobile technology, it’s an observation of a seemingly indefensible weakness in what’s become one of our most critical systems: mobile communications. While the lack of availability of service was frustrating to many ACL attendees, what if it had been an emergency situation rather than a music festival that caused such a concentrated surge in network utilization? What if it had not been text messages about how cute Regina Spector is, but rather frantic calls to 911 that were failing? According to the book Digital Infrastructures: Enabling Civil and Environmental Systems Through Information Technology: “During the morning on September 11, fewer than 1 in 20 mobile calls were connected in New York City. Since no system was in place to prioritize calls for emergency workers, response was confused and uncoordinated throughout much of the day.” Sure, in the event of an emergency, all it takes is a single call getting through to notify and dispatch emergency services, but how terrifying would it be for individuals to have to endure the unavailability and the unknown? For all the money we spend fighting terror, why isn’t this factored into the fight?

Even worse, as an operational efficiency, most service providers typically operate in an oversubscription model: say they expect to have 100 total customers, but they’ve statistically determined that there are usually only 20 concurrent active customers, so they build their systems to support double that, perhaps 40% of their total subscribership. (And 40% is generous: some estimates claim that cellular networks are designed for about 2 CCS (centum call seconds) or about 5% peak utilization, and POTS is not much better at 16%; Survivalist’s advice? Get a HAM radio). While these “statistical multiplexing” models work acceptably well under normal conditions (basic risk management: provide just enough service so that the predictable cost of complaints from the occasional but inevitable poorly-serviced, disgruntled customer is less than that of building and maintaining systems to handle increased capacity), if there is ever an event that causes a marked or sustained surge in utilization, they begin to fall apart. It seems that the sort of reliability and fault tolerance (i.e. the “availability” component of security’s “confidentiality, integrity, and availability” triad) that best-practices mandate we build into our production information systems doesn’t apply so much to systems whose services are rendered or resold for profit… even if they have the potential to affect matters or life and death.

Naturally, the first solution that comes to mind is the impotent incantation “Regulations!”, but big-telecomm is not likely to allow that sort of profit dampening to occur. It’s similarly romantic to think that we as consumers can do something about this by creating service-level competition among providers. Try this: before renewing your cellular contract, ask questions like “What is your local oversubscription percentage? What kind of service availability do you guarantee in the event of an emergency? What kind of utilization-spike countermeasures does your network employ?” You will either get a blank stare, or a response of “well, why don’t you switch over to our competition if you think they can provide you better service (after paying our $200 termination fee, of course).”

So long as these critical infrastructure services are nothing but profit centers governed purely by shareholder interests, this situation will not improve. Just thinking out loud: If the Department of Homeland Security spent 10% of its $37.4 billion 2008 budget on telecomm improvements, it could buy about 6% of Sprint/Nextel.

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