Communication key to post-disaster survival

In Japan aftermath, portable radios work where cell phones can't

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Two-way radios are commonly used by the police and firefighters and even utility workers. The radios basically work point-to-point often without the need for a radio tower, Gold noted. So two utility trucks miles apart can communicate by two-way radio but would probably need a communication tower to reach a dispatcher in a central location miles away.

The difficulty with a two-way radio network is that a company or a partner must operate over licensed wireless spectrum with expensive equipment, spending hundreds or thousands of dollars for a single handheld receiver. Some states and municipalities rely on their own private emergency networks, but even those are susceptible to physical damage from hurricanes, tornadoes and other catastrophic events.

Many federal agencies have satellite phones available to them, but the phones are less widely used in state and local governments. Satellite phones set up a wireless link with communications satellites above the Earth, which in turn downlink signals to towers or other locations with receivers on the ground.

"If you are a business, frankly, unless you have two-way radios, you are probably not going to be able to communicate with your workers if the communications network goes down," Gold said. "And even if the cellular network stays up, in a real disaster like Katrina, the networks are so overloaded that calls and data will be unreliable at best."

Gold said that even with a satellite phone, it might be hard to run a business for a few days after a disaster, just because other businesses would not be operating. The return on investment with a satellite phone is not great, unless the business operates in a critical area, Gold said. "Even if you had a satellite phone, what business would you be able to do anyway?" Gold reasoned. "There won't be any structures and power and your employees won't be able to drive in. FedEx could probably take the day off and not have customers complain."

Still, Redman, the Gartner analyst, said companies with mission-critical needs must have multiple lines of communication. "The more important the need, the bigger the investment, which can include both terrestrial and satellite services," he said.

For individuals and even business personnel trying to stay in touch with loved ones and colleagues, having both outbound and inbound communications might be impossible in a widespread disaster.

Still, getting information from commercial and public TV and radio is still possible with battery- or crank-operated emergency radios, some of which cost less than $50.

"Keeping a portable radio around for winter/summer storm power outages is something most people do" in New England, Gold noted.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen, or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His e-mail address is

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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