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See Inside Scientific American Volume 311, Issue 2

Future Cell Phones Will Make Emergency Calls Even When the Network Goes Down

A new cellular standard, LTE Direct, will be approved by the end of the year



Thomas Fuchs

When Hurricane Sandy battered the Eastern seaboard in 2012, it took down up to half of all cellular towers in the hardest-hit areas. The storm highlighted a flaw in our reliance on wireless phones as a primary means of communication. Qualcomm and other wireless companies have been working on a new cellular standard—a set of technical procedures that ensures devices can “talk” to one another—that will keep the lines open if the network fails. The Proximity Services, or so-called LTE Direct, standard will be approved by the end of the year.

In a typical cell phone call, the signal travels through a cellular tower. LTE Direct cuts out that middleman. In emergencies, phones that use it will be able to connect directly with one another over the same frequency as 4G LTE transmissions. Users will be able to call other users or first responders within about 500 meters. If the target is not nearby, the system can relay a message through multiple phones until it reaches its destination.

Qualcomm and others will need to update their antennas and processors to take advantage of LTE Direct, so it will be a year or more before phones have this functionality. But an approved standard means companies can get working.

This article was originally published with the title "A Network That Never Goes Down."

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