When disaster events call for flying COWs

Natural disasters like bushfires, cyclones and floods can have a disastrous impact on the communities effected by them. The double-whammy is that even after the disaster event, entire regions can be crippled for days or weeks afterwards waiting for infrastructure like comms to be repaired.

I was recently talking with a colleague, Bob, who helped coordinate the Warrnambool exchange rebuild after a fire back in 2012. It took down customer landline, broadband, mobile (41 mobile base-stations) and radio services across swathes of the south-west region of Victoria in Australia. The rebuild effort is famous in telco circles in these parts of the world. I don’t know how long it normally takes to build an exchange, but it’s certainly a lot longer than it took to rebuild this one! A monumental feat by the hundreds of people involved.

When comms is effected so broadly, the knock-on impacts are significant. Every form of communication (other than face-to-face) was down for extended periods. That meant nobody could communicate remotely to organise repair activities. Nobody could use EFTPOS to book hotels, buy food, etc. The region reverted to a cash economy. The related problem was that all forms of electronic funds transfer and ATMs were also inoperable, so getting hold of cash was also impeded.

Cell on Wheels (COWs) were available, but apparently took some time to get up and running… Besides, which operator has 41 COWs ready to assign?

I was reminded of this story upon reading two recent articles, that show we have other tools at our disposal for telco disaster recovery these days:

  • Cell on Wings – Flying CoWs or drone-mounted cells – such as the ones described in this article from AT&T (it also cites some other interesting ways that AT&T is enhancing their use of drones)
  • LEO satellite comms for mobile messaging – where SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet is to be paired with T-Mobile by next year. It will offer 2-4Mbps anywhere with a clear view of the sky from standard handsets (or any other device with a SIM, such as EFTPOS terminals). This removes almost all dependency on land-based comms infrastructure that could be damaged by natural disasters (except earth stations) or that is limited by reach (ie comms dead-zones in remote parts of the world)

Naturally, my mind turns to how OSS and BSS can augment and interwork with these solutions. It also reminds of the potential doomsday scenario for OSS builders. Like yesterday’s article, it shows I have such a one-tracked OSS mind! 😀 


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