Sandy: The Case for Better Cell Site Backup?

The aftermath of Superstorm Sandy brings the issue of back-up battery power for mobile cell cites into focus

Dan Jones, Mobile Editor

November 2, 2012

4 Min Read
Sandy: The Case for Better Cell Site Backup?

The wireless devastation wrought by Superstorm Sandy may be reason to re-evaluate the amount of battery backup power available to commercial cell sites after a major disaster.

Light Reading Mobile spoke to a public safety network expert at the 4G World show in Chicago this week who suggested one reason why some networks maintained connection through the brunt of the storm but went dead the next day was inadequate backup battery power.

"After Katrina, the FCC mandated eight-hour battery backup on cell sites," Emil Olbrich, lead project engineer for the office of law enforcement standards at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, reminded us.

That, though, was just the start of a long struggle between the regulator and the industry.

The backup power battle
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) started an inquiry into communication failures after Katrina in 2006 and mandated the change in early 2007. The CTIA and mobile operators kicked back against the ruling, arguing that it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to add eight-hour battery backup to 200,000 cell sites across the U.S.

The FCC made some concessions on the ruling in 2008 but generally stuck to its guns. The CTIA, Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S) and others took the ruling to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, asking for a stay from the ruling.

There's a good summary of these events in this Powergrid International article from 2008.

The court declared the case "unripe" in July 2008 because the Office of Management and Budget ("OMB") hadn't examined the ruling. The CTIA requested the OMB reject the FCC mandate in October 2008.

The White House office, which has oversight of federal regulations, rejected the rule in November 2008 because the FCC failed to get public comment on it. The FCC could have tried to overturn that decision but decided not to in December 2008.

The FCC said back then it would revise the ruling but didn't give a timescale for those actions.

The issue was raised again in 2011 when, following tropical storm Irene, Connecticut State Senator Andrew Roraback said he would introduce legislation to make operators equip towers with backup generators. The industry described the measures as unnecessary and unrealistic.

After Sandy?
At the 4G show, Olbrich noted that many commercial cell sites currently have less backup time than eight hours.

Verizon Wireless , however, did tell the Associated Press on Oct. 29 that all of its cell sites have eight hours or more of backup battery power.

Industry attendees we spoke to at the 4G World show agreed that battery backup had kicked in after the storm but then simply ran out. In such instances, carriers have to bring in generators or mobile cell sites to bring coverage back while the power is out.

Clearly, in a storm the size of Sandy it's difficult and dangerous to try and undertake that in the immediate aftermath of the storm's impact. The entire process is also a costly one for operators, as they have to send workers to the sites to prepare them for power availability once the grid comes back.

Obviously -- as we have reported -- backup power is by no means the only cell site issue in a storm of this magnitude. Many sites have also suffered major water damage, wind damage or simply been overloaded by the volume of traffic from concerned users trying to reach friends and loved ones.

All the major carriers are providing blow-by-blow updates of their efforts to bring the networks online.

As of 10 a.m. ET Thursday, the number of cell site outages in areas affected by the storm had fallen from about 25 percent to 19 percent, according to the FCC.

The public safety angle
Still, NIST engineer Olbrich says the kind of backup capabilities available on commercial networks would not pass muster on the nationwide first-responder LTE network being funded to the tune of $2 billion (of a total projected $7 billion) by the federal government.

"For public safety, well, it's just not good enough," Olbrich said of backup at commercial sites.

For more
For continuing updates on the state of communications following the superstorm, see Hurricane Sandy Updates.

— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Light Reading Mobile

About the Author(s)

Dan Jones

Mobile Editor

Dan is to hats what Will.I.Am is to ridiculous eyewear. Fedora, trilby, tam-o-shanter -- all have graced the Jones pate during his career as the go-to purveyor of mobile essentials.

But hey, Dan is so much more than 4G maps and state-of-the-art headgear. Before joining the Light Reading team in 2002 he was an award-winning cult hit on Broadway (with four 'Toni' awards, two 'Emma' gongs and a 'Brian' to his name) with his one-man show, "Dan Sings the Show Tunes."

His perfectly crafted blogs, falling under the "Jonestown" banner, have been compared to the works of Chekhov. But only by Dan.

He lives in Brooklyn with cats.

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