Communications Problems in Thursday's Attack in London

I wanted to comment as a Londoner on the WSJ report from London that
Monty Solomon posted
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following Thursday's coordinated bomb
attack on us.
The writers say that "the communications problems indicate that, at
least in Britain, cellphone-system operators may not have learned many
lessons from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S."
On the contrary, what they have clearly learned from is the March 2004
attacks on Madrid, where 191 people were killed by a series of bombs
in trains set off by cellphones. It's clear that, while there was
undoubtedly huge traffic on the networks (fixed and mobile) in the
hours after the very similar attacks on London, the network operators
followed a well known, though fortunately little used, procedure of
restricting network access.
Two reasons: partly to give the emergency services priority. Though
they of course have their own two-way radio networks for use within
individual services (police, fire/rescue, ambulance) they also use the
regular mobile phone networks because these give them access to other
services, such as hospitals, transport officials, utilities, local and
national government, including social services. When there is a major
incident access to non-essential users can be blocked by the networks:
this is a procedure that has existed at least since the 1960s - though
it was a lot more complex to operate in step-by-step Strowger switches
than it is now.
But secondly, as I heard the sirens on Thursday morning and saw the
police cars and ambulances hurtling past to Liverpool Street station
(close to my office) and the other sites, I was only too well aware of
what happened in Madrid 16 months ago.
Those bombs on the underground could not have been set off by mobile
phones as there is currently no coverage in the tunnels - the
experience of Madrid was a genuine cause for concern when Transport
for London announced plans a couple of months ago to let networks
install base stations. They were, it now seems, set off by electronic
timers -- all three bombs, at Edgware Road station, between Liverpool
Street and Aldgate stations, and between Kings Cross and Russell
Square stations, went off within 50 seconds of one another. Which
presumably means someone actually decided that 08.51 was precisely the
most effective time to kill people, as commuters would then be on the
last few minutes of their journeys to work for an 09.00 start.
However, it was clearly possible that there might be a second wave of
explosions on the above-ground trains that carry more millions of
people into central London each day, including me to work and my
daughters to school, and that cellphones might be used to set those
off. So I was not surprised that it was impossible to make outgoing
calls from mobile phones in the affected areas (calls to the 999
emergency number, the equivalent to and the predecessor of the North
American 911, would not have been blocked). And incoming calls were
automatically diverted to voicemail -- avoiding any chance of calls
getting through to phones that were wired into bombs. We still don't
know how the fourth bomb, on the bus, was set off -- the police are
still, literally, putting the pieces together.
Alan Burkitt-Gray
Editor, Global Telecoms Business magazine, London
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Alan Burkitt-Gray
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