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Disaster Planning Considerations for Wireless Phones (Part 1 of 2)

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If your wireless provider has an unexpected outage, can your customers still reach you? In part 1 of a two-part series, Leo A. Wrobel and Sharon M. Wrobel discuss the importance of addressing your wireless phones in your corporate emergency plans.
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The gradual decline of wireline telephone service in the U.S. and worldwide is forcing today's technologists to rethink disaster recovery, for a couple of reasons:

  • Wireless phones are not simply a convenience anymore.
  • Wireless phones can be indispensable in an emergency by helping users to maintain command and control.

We discuss both of these points in this two-part series.

Backing Up Your Backup

To make sure that you can avail yourself of wireless technology in an emergency, it's a good idea to start with a backup plan for your wireless phone itself. This point was driven home to us recently by the following personal experience (eerily similar to a previous event, when we were almost caught flat-footed by a major snowstorm).

Our office is served by wireless Internet, on two separate feeds handling office phones and data access. We back up this configuration with wireless phones. Our reasoning is that even if both Internet feeds should fail due to a widespread outage, we can still communicate with clients via wireless phone. However, because we use our wireless phones daily, not just for emergencies, many of our clients are used to bypassing the switchboard and calling us directly at our mobile numbers. This trend is exacerbated by the fact that Leo's mobile number spells "Call Leo." Since that number is easy to remember, people often use it.

Recently, our wireless provider sustained trouble at its tower, probably due to a lightning strike that didn't knock out the tower—just impaired it. Suddenly our wireless calls became hit-or-miss, with about 50% being blocked during peak hours. People could still call our office number, but our most common callers were now ingrained in the habit of dialing up "Leo" or "Sharon" on their wireless phones. They had no way of knowing why our responsiveness was suddenly so poor.

For a firm that creates disaster recovery plans, that image frankly stank.

On the bright side, the outage gave us a chance to exercise our wireless phones' recovery plan, which we had put into place about a year previously. Just in case our service provider should ever fail, we had modified our wireless devices to use VoIP to make calls over the Internet.

Like millions of other people do these days, several of us carry the Apple iPhone. Our iPhones now have the ability to use other carriers (through a process called unlocking), and they have VoIP capability preinstalled, including the ability to use our usual phone numbers in an emergency.

The iPhone isn't exactly the most "open" platform unless some modifications are made, so implementing this plan wasn't necessarily easy, but here's how we did it.

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