109 Years After the Great Earthquake: How Will We Call for Help Next Time?

This Saturday marks the 109th anniversary of the San Francisco earthquake that rocked the Bay Area and, in less than a minute, destroyed nearly 500 city blocks. Hundreds of thousands of San Francisco residents were instantly homeless and unable to connect with loved ones due to the destruction of telephone and telegraph lines.

A century ago, the U.S. Army Signal Corps was responsible for reestablishing the severed telephone and telegraph lines damaged by the quake and subsequent fires. Lines began to go back up just hours after the disaster, and a line linking the Army headquarters to the Secretary of War was up within 24 hours.

As the Corps team on site grew, so did the number of telephone lines. More than 40 telegraph offices and 79 phone offices went up in the immediate aftermath, making communications between relief districts, transportation hubs, the mayor’s office and federal agencies possible. For nearly a month, San Francisco relied on this military “communications network.”

It’s incredible to think about how prepared they were back then. It’s just as incredible to realize how far we have come to keep the nation’s second most densely populated metropolitan area running on consistent and reliable wireless networks. With more than 800,000 residents in San Francisco alone, network infrastructure remains critical to meeting the growing demand for advanced wireless service and keeping people connected, especially when it matters most.

Experts agree. It’s not a matter of “if,” but “when” the next big earthquake will strike.  Robust capacity and resilient systems can make all the difference in mitigating the potentially colossal impacts of disaster on wireless networks and their customers . For example, commercial power outages are an obvious concern during emergencies.  That’s why Verizon invests in back-up power systems, resilient infrastructure, geographically diverse locations, around-the-clock monitoring, and more.  It’s all to keep customers connected when, not if, commercial power fails.

Following any natural disaster or major catastrophe, the main challenge is handling huge spikes of traffic on a network that’s engineered for typical peak time usage.

Think of it this way: A freeway functions adequately during off-peak hours (day-to-day wireless usage), but gets immensely crowded during rush hour (emergencies, citywide events, natural disasters). Rush hour can create a parking lot. We need to dramatically speed freeway (network) traffic by doubling the number of lanes (XLTE technology) to handle twice as many cars more efficiently.

San Francisco must have dense, robust communications networks to keep the city connected during large citywide events like Super Bowl 50 or the Nike Women’s Marathon or the next big earthquake. Remember, it’s when, not if, and two of those three events are already on the calendar!

Verizon will meet the city’s exploding demand for wireless service in many ways, including small cell networks to add capacity, speed and improve in-building coverage. We’re focusing extra effort in areas of the city experiencing high call volume, high data usage and anywhere reliability needs to be better. Currently, we are focusing on downtown and the northeastern part of the city, including South of Market, the Financial District and North Beach.

These small cells will add capacity, and improve coverage, voice quality, reliability and data speeds to stay  ahead of the growth in demand from residents, businesses, first responders and visitors using the network. That demand has nearly doubled in the last year, and will grow by a factor of eight by 2018.

So, while we can’t prevent the next earthquake or any other natural disaster, we can prepare to recover and respond quickly by improving networks to keep San Francisco connected for the “when, not if.”