Resilient communities need resilient communications

Resilient communities need resilient communications
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This month, California’s deadliest fire displaced 150,000 people and simultaneously disrupted cell service in the heaviest-hit areas. Two months ago, Hurricane Florence rendered 10.7 percent of cell sites in affected areas of Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia out of service, disrupting communications for many in their time of greatest need. Victims of fires and storms alike depend on oftentimes-vulnerable infrastructure to talk to each other.

But what if you didn’t need cell towers or WiFi routers to communicate wirelessly? What if refugees could connect with each other using just their smartphones?

New technologies such as wireless mesh networks could allow you to talk to your friends and family on a smartphone even when cell towers or wireless services in your area stop working, representing a leap forward for convenience and for public safety. However, to make way for these innovations, we need to clarify the regulatory environment and move away from current spectrum licensing policies that favor big network providers.

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It’s especially important because the ability of a community to withstand a disaster depends on secure, reliable systems of communication that allow individuals to share information with each other, form impromptu relief efforts, and coordinate recovery. Recent incidents teach us that such systems are vulnerable, and that there is demand for more channels of communication.

Before Florence, Hurricane Sandy knocked out 25 percent of cell sites in its path. Hurricane Katrina knocked down over 3 million telephone lines in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama; over 20 million telephone calls did not go through the day after. In the face of jammed lines and widespread service outages, people turned to alternative means of communication such as websites, blogs, and texting to connect with each other.

More recently, smartphone apps such as FireChat have begun leveraging mesh networking technology that builds direct peer-to-peer networks instead of relying on existing infrastructure, allowing smartphones and other devices to act as routers and hop data from one device to another. While mesh networks face technical difficulties such as limited range which require large numbers of users to overcome, they are already proving their potential.

Recently, NPR listed FireChat as a useful app for communication during Hurricane Florence, and large media companies in the Philippines are using it to disseminate information on typhoons. Another mesh networking startup, goTenna, launched an out-of-the-box device that set up a relay node enabling peer-to-peer connection. Their network helped connect Puerto Ricans after Hurricane Maria, and now consists of over 100,000 individual devices spread across the United States that can serve as relays between other user devices.

Because mesh networks operate peer-to-peer rather than relying on cell towers, they face fewer legal challenges — but that doesn’t mean there aren’t obstacles.

Mesh networks still operate in an uncertain regulatory environment, as evidenced by previous FCC proposals to ban modifications of wireless routers that threatened at least one mesh network project and prompted router manufacturers to restrict modifications to their devices. Such wide-reaching restrictions make investment risky for entrepreneurs, discouraging mesh network start-ups and other new technologies.

The FCC should instead maintain an open regulatory environment permissive of experimentation, or at the very least target only specific modifications that could harm consumers through data theft or other illegal activities.

In addition to regulatory uncertainty, small start-ups such as goTenna seeking to invest in infrastructure to expand their peer-to-peer networks risk running into licensing hurdles that favor large network providers over small ones. The FCC, for example, is considering expanding licenses that essentially grant limited monopolies in mid-band spectrum (a section of radio frequencies previously reserved for satellite transmission of TV and radio programs) over large areas for 10 years and on a renewable basis.

Larger licenses and contracts that transfer large slices of spectrum to firms such as AT&T make entry into the market harder for smaller enterprises without the funds to put together major bids or purchase large-area licenses. A startup in an urban area, for instance, will likely lack the funds to purchase a license for the whole city.

The system also encourages spectrum hoarding from large firms who have less incentive to innovate because government licensing protects them against newcomers to who might have something different to offer.

Mesh networks are a resilient way of facilitating communication in the face of disaster, but they need room to grow. Policymakers should maintain an environment of permissiveness for such technologies, and avoid policies that discourage innovation. It’s time to give smaller, innovative firms and individuals a chance to bring new network technologies to the market. Resilient communities need resilient communication networks to weather the storms to come.

Anne Hobson is a program manager with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. Walter Stover is a Mercatus MA Fellow.