Just how dependent are you on your wireless phone?

Just two days ago, the Chicago Tribune reported that a service outage affecting AT&T customers cut off wireless users across the Midwest all day Sunday. This outage in turn highlights a growing trend: According to the Tribune article, one out of every six U.S. households does not have a landline. That means just under 18 percent of U.S. households, up from 7 percent only three years ago, depend entirely on wireless technology for their communication needs.

When I was growing up, it was a fact of life that the family telephone would continue operating in a power outage. As time went on and we incorporated a cordless phone or two, we learned that those phones would not work in the event of a brownout. We turned instead to the older, more reliable landlines. Later, when my father’s home business required the installation of a commercial intercom system integrated into phones throughout the house, none of the phones operated in a power outage – and we would have to drag out the single, scuffed Princess model we kept in the basement, plugging it in so we could make and receive calls during ice storms and other losses of power.

During the Northeast blackout of 2003, nearly 50 million people in the United States and Canada were affected by a power-grid problem, and the causes were debated fiercely in the days that followed. When the power went out that August afternoon, I was in the car running an errand. I was listening to AM talk radio, and it wasn’t long before news reports revealed that the outage was far more than a local problem. A bit concerned, I dialed my wife on my wireless phone – only to discover I could not connect. The wireless network was down.

This was only two years after Sept. 11, 2001, and I was not the first person to wonder – with growing agitation as the power outage continued – if this wasn’t some far-reaching act of terrorism affecting several portions of American infrastructure. As it turned out, the truth, as it so often is, was far less fraught with drama. When the power went out, everyone and his uncle started making calls, apparently. The subsequent load on the wireless network was what crashed it. Power was eventually restored, we spent at least part of a day blaming Canada for the failure of the grid, and the debate continued for some time after that. I remember thinking, even then, that my wireless phone was not as dependable as I had come to think of it.

As a society, we are becoming increasingly involved with our phones. Camera phones and phones that record digital video have turned every second person on the street into an amateur reporter. Very few events transpire that are not recorded for the news, or for YouTube, by some wireless phone-toting spectator. Our phones browse the Internet, keep us connected to our work e-mails while on the go and have turned the noun “text” into a verb meaning: “to send a written message to someone on your wireless phone.” The pervasiveness of wireless phone technology has helped make us all more interconnected, to each other and to the network of networks that is the Internet, speeding up society, making data transfer more rapid and becoming critical infrastructure for millions of Americans. What we have to ask ourselves, then, is how we will cope when we are suddenly and unexpected cut off from these devices on which we now depend.

Techworld reported yesterday that a denial-of-service attack, spread by text message to Nokia phones, could cause those phones to stop receiving subsequent messages. This raises the ugly specter of computer virus-like malware affecting phones – and causing phones to require anti-virus protection – in the same way such programming affects home and laptop computers today. Some PDAs already run Windows, after a fashion, and the plethora of viruses makes the Windows Mobile pocket-PC user wonder if his phone and data assistant is as safe as it should be.

A few years ago, one of the late Gene Roddenberry’s television programs made mention of this trend, among a few others. (The program correctly predicted, for example, that the Internet would become a sort of alternative broadcast medium for user-generated content, including television shows.) Characters on the show were equipped with devices they called “Globals” –combination telephone, television, data transfer and recording devices that were, in some ways, like the all-purpose “tricorders” of Roddenberry’s “Star Trek.” Any child who today is old enough to notice the similarity between a modern flip phone and a Star Trek communicator will take for granted that the Enterprise crew is simply talking on wireless phones. A decade or two from now, our youngsters may well take for granted that a phone is not merely a phone, but an all-purpose, multimedia data receiver and transmitter. One could argue that this is already the case.

These innovations are useful, convenient and even fun. I’m very dependent on my Blackberry, and I use it for everything from text messaging to playing Tetris and, yes, even to make the occasional phone call. When we take a piece of technology for granted, however, we must consider the unintended consequences of accepting that piece of infrastructure for what it has become. We must ask ourselves how we will cope if we are suddenly cut off from these devices, which are far more susceptible to denials of service than we might be tempted to think. Whether from power outages or malicious software, our phones are vulnerable to external threats. We must acknowledge this and plan for it if we are to have workable alternatives in the event of an emergency.

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