What Became of the Telecom Gold Standard for Reliability?

by Colin Berkshire

The United States used to have the most reliable communications system in the world? Now, it is one of the worst. What happened? And why don’t people seem to care?

The standard in 1975 for Central Office reliability was that a cumulative total of 3 minutes of downtime was allowed over the course of a full year. Over a 30 year period, a central office could accumulate only one single hour of downtime.

Today we should have far higher reliability. We no longer use vacuum tubes or discrete components. We know how to build failsafe systems. So it’s neither a lack of technology nor a lack of knowledge.

My best guess is that it is apathy. The public doesn’t seen to get very upset when 911 cannot be reached for hours or days. If an area loses all cellular service for hours or days there is no reporting, no accountability, and no management concern or awareness. We’ve just gotten sloppy and we don’t seem to care.

A Central Office in 1975 was backed up with a floor of batteries that would sustain operation for 48 hours. Then, it would have a natural gas generator if gas was available. Then, there would be 7 days of diesel fuel on hand. And, that was just for a residential neighborhood. A toll switching system would often be double that.

Today, a cell site might have less than 6 hours of battery and no generator at all. In some cases there is less than 2 hours of power.

What will we do in the event of a national emergency? Imagine the internet is down, phones are down, and we just can’t communicate. How would we make it through?

Not concerned? Well, there you have it.