Hurricane Winds and Wireless Networks

Should the communications industry provide backup power for its infrastructure?

Laura_Sanchez_Editor

Today, wireless communications infrastructure is more important than ever. Besides facilitating our phone calls, it provides vital information pathways and supports millions of interconnected devices. When disaster strikes, however, keeping communications infrastructure up and running can be a challenge.

Ensuring network resilience is an important piece of the puzzle, since digital connectivity keeps a multitude of other systems in operation. Connection redundancy—offering multiple communications routes—can help reduce the likelihood of channels being disabled at the same time. Backup power also helps ensure that cell sites function properly when disaster strikes.

The wireless industry has famously resisted regulations obligating its member companies to provide backup power at cell towers so that they function reliably during emergency scenarios. The industry contends that there are vastly differing needs for power from site to site and from region to region. Trade organizations assert that a standard backup requirement is excessive, and even wasteful.

But when Hurricane Harvey ripped across Texas and Louisiana last week, the storm knocked out 10 cell towers, according to Bloomberg. At one point, nearly one in 20 towers was incapacitated. The FCC reported that in Houston, 5.1% of the cell sites were not working even though wireless companies had readied backup generators and brought in emergency response teams and fuel ahead of time.

In 2011 as the FCC was considering steps to make communications networks increasingly reliable during emergencies, the CTIA, a trade group representing the communications industry, urged “the commission not to adopt backup power regulations” because requirements would likely be “either too specific to be relevant to many network operators or too vague to be useful for all,” said CTIA.

The issue arose again in 2014, as the FCC considered requiring detailed outage reporting. “Network performance standards, including backup power standards, are unwarranted,” CTIA told the FCC in a filing. “Such regulation would harm network reliability by restricting carriers’ abilities to implement innovative solutions.”

“The wireless industry has done everything it can to persuade federal regulators and state regulators not to require that backup power be put in place,” Regina Costa, chair of the telecommunications committee of the National Association of State Utility Advocates, recently told Fortune. “It’s a huge public safety issue—because in order for communications to work there has to be power.”

What do you think?

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Should the wireless industry be obligated to provide backup power for its networks?

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