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Broadcasts from the war zone

Last week, the Washington Post reported that the second Gulf War will probably erupt in January.

A missile attack on Israel would prove an interesting tests of communications infrastructure, which has improved remarkably since the last war with Iraq, in 1991.

The last time around, each missile attack completely clogged the Bezeq (TASE: BZEQ ) telephony network, as tens of thousands of people frantically phoned to and from the target areas, inquiring after their dear ones or even mere acquaintances.

Communications systems are built on the assumption that no more than say 1% of its subscriber will be using it at the same time, at peak use. The networks did not collapse under the load, but they couldn't serve everyone either. The problems even jammed up emergency services, some of which are based on the public phone system.

The establishment of cellular networks highly increases the probability that we won't get completely cut off when everyone starts dialing, asking where the missile fell.

In the United States, the September 11 attacks led to a surge in demand for cellular services. But Israelis didn't need the threat of missiles to hook up. Almost every Israeli family has at least one mobile phone.

Straining the resources

Back in 1991, there was only one mobile communications company Pele-Phone Communications. Now there are four the veteran, augmented by Cellcom, Partner Communications (LSE:PTNRq; TASE, Nasdaq: PART ) , and MIRS. They will share the burden in emergency, reducing the chances of a communications breakdown.

The cellular networks can get jammed up. Cellphones have become a staple in Israeli emergencies. During last year's terror attacks, cellular service was clearly impaired while the wireline communications worked as usual. A good way to keep in touch during missile attack would be to have phones that operate over more than one network, and the best option of all is a separate phone for each network.

The main advance in terrestrial wireline communications was the construction of a special network for the emergency services. The network is not affected by overload of the public systems and is immune to the jams we may expect during missile attacks.

That aside, the Bezeq phone company has done nothing to reduce the ratio of subscribers and switchboard capacity. "Increasing capacity requires tremendous, and unjustified, investment," explains Bezeq deputy chief executive, Paul Weissbach. Tests the company conducted during the last Gulf war showed that the overload creating difficulty in getting a line when trying to dial out, lasted only a few minutes, he says.

Internet was a rarity back then, but will probably be massively used this time around. Dial-up surfers will create even more load on the lines. Trying to get online at the peak load will be just as hard as trying to phone mom. Surfers using fast-Internet or cable lines will have a distinct advantage.

Fast Internet lines bypass the local switching station, which is where the clogs usually happen. But it won't solve the key problem surfers will face overload on the sites reporting breaking news in real time. Short-messaging services such as ICQ and Yahoo! Messenger as alternatives to phone calls will also be strained: even though their resources requirements are austere, servers have only so much capacity.

The vulnerability of the communications networks

Cellular networks will be less vulnerable to missile hits than they proved during the recent terror attacks. One reason is that the strikes are likely to be at night, when most people are at home. The terror attacks were at mid-day, in crowded areas.

The cellular networks are hardy. If one antenna is hit, the communications will simply transfer to another nearby antenna covering the area. The load on the attacked area will grow, but communications will not break down. In some cases the companies can supply mobile antennas to relieve overload, or to replace an antenna that's gone down. The cellular base stations are equipped with backup batteries in case of power failure, and generators powered by fuel.

In case of overload, phone to phone short messaging is a good option. SMS services don't use the same network as voice calls.

MIRS is offering an interesting possibility. Cellular aside, its subscribers can communicate using wireless technology. But that won't help get in touch with users of other networks, or information services.

Note also that the much of the emergency services also use wireless, and in emergency they get precedence over civilians calling mom.

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