Cell congestion inevitable

Economics to blame

Cayman Islands residents can expect
mobile telephone congestion problems during times of possible emergency events
that occur in one instant, like when earthquakes affect the area.

That’s the message Dave Archbold,
managing director of the Information and Communication Technology Authority,
has for residents, but he says economics, and not the telephone companies, are
to blame.

The limitations of Grand Cayman’s
phone services were brought to light on 19 January after a 5.9 magnitude
earthquake rattled the Island and many people tried to call friends and family immediately
afterwards. Callers found that their calls were not going through, being met
with a busy signal or heard messages that the line was not in service.

“In a very unexpected event like
that happening in an instant, everyone tried to call everyone else at the same
time,” said Mr. Archbold. “The call volume went up 10 to 20 times the normal
call rate instantly.”

The problem is not unique to
Cayman. Congestion problems happen all over the world when too many people try
to make calls on the same cellular network at the same time.

Donnie Forbes, head of technology operations
for LIME, noted it is almost impossible for any telecoms provider anywhere in
the world to build in excess capacity to the extent that would have
prevented the congestion that occurred after Cayman’s earthquake.

Mr. Archbold explained that a cell
tower has a limited number of devices that transmit and receive cell phone
signals and the capacity of the towers around Grand Cayman varies tremendously
depending on where the cell companies think calls will be coming from.

He said the towers are equipped to
handle a normal number of calls, about a quarter of the Island’s population at
any one time using a phone, with an additional margin depending on how robust
the carrier wants its network to be.

 “They configure them according to their best
guess of how many calls will be made and how many towers and transponders will
be needed, using the principles of network planning,” Mr. Archbold said.

 “But you cannot expect the cell providers to
configure their networks to handle 10 to 20 times the normal call rate,” he
added.

“They’d have to charge their customers
10 to 20 times more than what they are charging. It’s simple economics and if
people want that kind of coverage, they must be willing to pay for it.”

Both LIME and Digicel carriers
issued statements assuring customers that their networks did not experience any
outages after the earthquake, but acknowledged periods of congestion.

 LIME said its network traffic volumes started
to return to normal as of 11:30am on Tuesday, while Digicel said traffic on its
network returned back to normal levels within an hour of the earthquake.

Mr. Forbes said the most congestion
LIME’s network experienced was on the western side of Grand Cayman in George
Town, Seven Mile Beach and West Bay.

“Our mobile cell sites, which serve
these areas, experienced greater than a 100 per cent increase in attempts to
use the network between 9.30am to 11am,” he said.

 An ‘attempt’ is whenever a caller hits the
send button to initiate a call, whether or the call was successful or not.

“We also noted that the rest of our
network nationwide experienced an increase in attempts on the network
immediately after the earthquake.”

The Digicel statement said that in
the hours following the earthquake, its network carried less than five times
the number of calls that it would normally carry.

Mr. Archbold noted that a sudden
event like the earthquake is very different in terms of cell service than an
event like an imminent hurricane, where the call volume gradually increases,
hits a peak and drops off.

“In addition during a hurricane,
the cell network may experience genuine problems if the towers are down and the
power is out.”

Mr. Archbold says that mobile phone
users need to appreciate the limits of cell phones.

“Nobody in government or in emergency
services was relying on cell phones for communication during the emergency,” he
said.

“Cell phones are really a
supplementary method of communication.”

He advises residents to keep that
in mind when they reach for their mobile.

“If another situation arises like
this, a sudden event where everyone wants to make a call, first ask yourself if
that call is really necessary,” he said.

Echoing the recommendations of Mr.
Forbes, he suggested alternatives to a cell phone call.

“Use a landline, use electronic messaging
or send a text.”

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