When I ran a tech company, my chief technology officer, Rich Sadowsky, always used to harp at me about making sure there was no "single point of failure" -- that one tiny thing that can bring the whole system down. You may have massive backups in every possible area, but the single point of failure is the one thing you fail to anticipate, because it never happens. For instance, a 10 cent fuse can bring down an entire radio network if there's no redundancy in one little box.
We're living in a digital world, and we've come to rely on our digital devices. They're always there for us (unless we forget to recharge them). We rely heavily on our phones and our laptops, and many of us even rely on a digital connection to watch our televisions via Roku or Apple TV. Yet there is a single point of failure for all these devices that no one ever anticipates. Power.
This past week we've been reminded about the critical importance of the power grid in America, and the devastation when millions of homes and businesses have their power wiped out by a single storm. Suddenly that website we rely on for weather, for news, is gone. That connection to e-mail our friends and family to see if they're OK is gone. In my home we have Vonage and an Internet-connected phone. Gone. Landline phones might work after a storm, but many households today don't even have them. Yet when power is down, local cell towers can't function and a cellular phone won't work.
It seems impossible in modern times for a community to go without power for seven to nine days, but those are the predicted downtimes in many communities. When the power grid in New York blew out a few years ago, there was no power in much of the Northeast for close to a week. No power means no communication, no information. Your phone, your iPad, your television, your cell phone are without power, and batteries soon run out with no way to change.
Storms that take out the power may be infrequent, but when it happens, there is a feeling of helplessness. You have no idea what is going on around you, and there is no way to know what you should do next. At these moments, there is a 100-year-old technology that is almost 100 percent sure to be operating.
Radio towers are designed to withstand hurricanes, and most radio stations have 10 days of fuel to operate their transmitters from a generator, and often their studios as well. Two-way radio also works, allowing police, fire, and ham radio operators to communicate with one another and push that information to local radio stations, which keep America informed.
What do you do if you need information? Your cell phone may have power, but there is no cell tower to connect with, no Internet to connect with. You turn your radio on.
Today most households still have an average of six radios in the home. Virtually every automobile in America has a radio in the dash. And almost every American over 15 has a mobile phone, which could contain an FM radio chip.
That makes the phone into a radio -- one that uses little power and lets the phone battery last long enough to let you hear the instructions that can get you to safety. The chip can also send messages to the phone itself, to communicate when phone service is down.
They say that sometimes it takes an act of God to change Congress. Washington, DC, found itself without power and helpless. Only radio was able to come through.
I've waffled about FM chips in cell phones because at times it seems so strange to make such an old technology part of a new technology. But it is in these moments when the purpose is clear.
Once the power is back, people will quickly forget about the days of inconvenience -- until the next time. While this massive power outage is fresh in the minds of your representatives in Congress, give them a call or send this note their way to remind them the power of radio and its reliability during these moments, and encourage them to consider the FM chip in every phone. The chip is already there in most smartphones, it's just not activated. It could be, and should be, in every phone in America.
Get contact information for your Congressional representative here.