If nearly all the nation’s pagers could be silenced from a single malfunctioning satellite, can cell phones be far behind?
Not likely, according to an array of communications analysts and others, who stress that the type of satellite mishap that shut down paging networks, along with radio and television feeds, could not happen to cellular phones.
And for a very simple reason: Cell phones aren’t operated through satellites.
“A cellular architecture has cell sites all over the ground,” said Thomas Calcagnini, a senior vice president at investment bank Dabney Flannigan LLC in West Los Angeles. “If you had a cell site that went out, maybe you’d have a dead area. But a lot of cell sites would have to go down to have a dramatic impact on cellular phones.”
And even if, say, a massive earthquake were to knock out several cell sites in a given area, only that area would be affected no statewide or nationwide blackout would occur.
Cellular phone calls, unlike messages sent to pagers, rely on antennas that send and receive transmissions located throughout an area. Even cross-country or international cell phone calls are relayed from local towers to ground lines, rather than to satellites.
If a tower goes down, another nearby antenna’s power is typically increased to compensate for the outage.
Also, while those antennas use electrical power lines, most have backup systems powered by batteries or fuel generators. Some have multiple backup systems allowing the antennas to run for a day or longer without electrical power from the primary grid.
During the 1994 Northridge earthquake, even while standard telephone lines could not be used throughout much of L.A., most cellular phone users were able to make and receive calls. Cellular systems have also survived major fires, floods and hurricanes with a minimal loss of services.
“It would take a massive, massive, massive something we’ve never seen before in the world to put us under,” said Steven Crosby, a spokesman for Cerritos-based L.A. Cellular Telephone Co., one of the area’s largest cellular service providers.
As for last week, analysts were quick to note that most pagers were operational again within 24 hours of the satellite’s failure. “It was probably a hassle for you for a day, and it might cause you a little bit of a concern,” said Calcagnini, “but it was only a day.”
Yet even a day can be disruptive and costly in today’s global business world.
With information being disseminated worldwide at ever-faster speeds due to satellite television and the Internet, pagers and cell phones have become crucial tools for business, said George Geis, a professor of information technology at the Anderson School at UCLA.
“All business activity today is moving at a pace that it didn’t use to move at, whether it be merger-and-acquisition activity, licensing deals or partnerships,” Geis said. “Now people feel like they have an obligation to their work that can be almost continuous.”