Wednesday, September 28, 2005
A few months ago, NBC's Tonight Show staged a race between a pair of ham-radio operators with Morse-code keys and a couple of kids with text-messaging cellphones to see who could communicate faster. The hams won hands down, proving, in the minds of some, that old technology could hold its own against new. In recent days, ham radio was put to the test again by Hurricane Katrina. This time, however, lives were at stake.
In the world of design engineers and electronics in general, change is essential. Designers work diligently to make the fruits of their labors obsolete almost before they see daylight. The turnover in technology is sometimes like a flood, with old being washed away by new over and over. Often, the new beats the heck out of the old. But there are times when old isn't necessarily bad; in fact, sometimes old works when new doesn't. And then we're glad that old is still around, or at least we should be.
Wireless technology, while relatively new to many consumers, is of course not new at all. A few (very) old-timers remember the original "wireless" of radio. The revolution wrought by the pioneers of wireless changed the world then, and the technology behind that revolution has been re-invented and re-applied time and again. Its pre-eminent incarnation today is our near-ubiquitous wireless communications infrastructure, which has freed us from the shackles of landlines and made our mobile lifestyles possible. Technology truly is great stuff.
Until, of course, a monster hurricane comes along to render it nearly useless. Here we see a scenario in which a flood literally swept away the new. As Hurricane Katrina's fury hammered the Gulf states on August 29, the communications infrastructure took a devastating hit. Telephone service, including wireless, became at first intermittent and then unusable in many localities. Where there was phone service, 911 switchboards were often unreachable due to the massive volume of calls. The response of local authorities, now termed "confused" by deposed FEMA chief Michael Brown, wasn't helping much. The Gulf Coast was about to descend into darkness, chaos, and, worst of all for many, silence.
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