Wired or wireless: which do you want in an emergency? Why choose?


On Monday Speed Matters posted an article on the shortcomings of wireless and VoIP in the face of Superstorm Sandy…

If you lived in the path of Superstorm Sandy and had ditched your old landline, chances were much greater you were out of luck. For many people, both cellphones and power went out, and that meant no telecommunications. Some people are still struggling with it.

Clearly this is an issue for folks left off the grid during an emergency. But does this mean that wired is the answer in an emergency? As my friend Bernadine Joselyn has taught me – the best answer to most questions is – it depends. In this case it depends on what the emergency is.

In recent memory, Minnesota has had two standout emergency situations: the 35 Bridge going down and the Republican National Convention. In both cases, I was happy to have access to wireless communication. In the case of the bridge, the phones lines were quickly overwhelmed. So I was happy to both get Tweets from friends who live close to the bridge and to post Tweets for folks outside of Minnesota who think I live close to the bridge. In the case of the RNC, I was glad to have access to mobile maps and communication. It made it so much easier to find a way in and out of St Paul – especially as they closed streets without warning. Also at least locally, the RNC was the first place where citizens could live stream events as they were happening. (Thanks in large part to The UpTake giving citizens cameras that broadcast events as they were being recorded – helping to get unfiltered news to the air waves.)

So does that mean I think wireless is the way to go? It depends. If I were in Sandy’s path, I’d want wired connectivity.

I guess to me the question is – why must we choose one over the other? Both technologies have their advantages. Wired has quality and speed. Wireless has mobility. Like any good network, the capabilities of wired and wireless technologies overlap; this makes for nice redundancy. And their unique qualities indicate that neither could adequately replace the other without giving up some benefit.

At home, I generally use a wired connection but when the kids are home and I need better speeds, I leave wired to them and I use wireless. Or if one goes down, I can always revert to the other. It means I pay more for two connections. Some months I don’t use both options – but on the months I do, it’s worth the extra cost. The cost of redundancy is much less than the lost revenue if I’m offline. It’s great for redundancy – but also I appreciate the unique qualities of each. Months where I travel, I use the heck out of my mobile wireless. But in general I need the all-I-can-eat data plans of my wired connection.

In short I need both wired and wireless connections. (And I’m not even thinking about Smartphone access – I’m thinking pure, get-my-laptop-on-the-network-so-I-can-work connectivity.) I understand the costs for a larger business or community are much greater than my costs – but aren’t the risks greater too? I think more people ought to ask themselves if it makes sense to choose one – or does is it worth the investment to look at both.

Also I’m not thinking about the construction of a broadband network that meets my needs. I’ve tried to make that in other posts. In fact I will point out a video I got of Kevin Beyer (Federated/Farmers Telecom) explaining the need for wired to support wireless last April, which I think further makes the point that it’s not an either/or discussion.

Some of my reaction to the article comes from listening to the Task Force talk about strides necessary to get to the 2015 broadband goals in Minnesota. They stress that we need to make a concerted effort to get to 5 Mbps up and 10 Mbps down by 2015 – and I think they’re using any technology to measure against that goal. I appreciate a technology-neutral stance but having three daughters I know that equal isn’t always equitable. I think we need to quit thinking of wired and wireless in equal terms and appreciate that they are different but equally essential. It’s time transition our ideas on wireless OR wired to wireless AND wired.