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

year2525 1/22/2013 | 9:37:42 PM
re: Sandy: The Case for Better Cell Site Backup? -áInteresting stuff, thanks for your input on this.
191Jack 1/22/2013 | 8:57:29 PM
re: Sandy: The Case for Better Cell Site Backup? The generators we used at our sites were either natural gas or propane. in the case of propane we buried all the tanks we could along with the fuel lines. All our tanks were set up for a minimum of 5 days continuous run time. In every case of an emergency, it gave us ample time to clear a path to a site and get a fuel truck in. We never ran out of gas. The other thing we did was to clear all the trees growing outside our sites so that any outdoor generators were not damaged although many of our sires had generators inside the cell building. The buildings were precast concrete and none were ever damaged in an emergency.

Our only use of diesel powered generators was at our switches and a few portable generator sets that could be brought in in case of a generator failure. We also had 365/24/7 generator service contracts and regular preventative maintenance. We ran every generator including our switch units on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday under full site and switch loads during the very busiest times of the day to make sure they would do the job when needed.
191Jack 1/22/2013 | 8:39:57 PM
re: Sandy: The Case for Better Cell Site Backup? I retired after 23 years with a NE US cellular carrier. From day 1 we not only had battery backup at our cell sites and switches but also generators. To me and the carrier I worked for at the time it was unthinkable not to provide continuous backup power as our subscribers needed their phones more during an emergency.-á
In 1985 we had a hurricane that put our rival carrier OUT OF SERVICE because the power outage was several days. We stayed on line except for one site where the leased tower we were on was blown down.-á
I've seen carriers pour money into portable generators and control centers, but for naught as the generators could not be dispatched to the sites that needed them when the crisis hit.-á
I'm afraid I find the carriers argument pretty weak about the cost if they are going to serve the public interest. Their loss of revenue in these cases should be cause for alarm.-á
If anyone is interested I have plenty more to say but I am not going to bore the people that won't listen.-á
Kit Kilgour 12/5/2012 | 5:18:16 PM
re: Sandy: The Case for Better Cell Site Backup?

I can see that there is a stronger case for ensuring that macro-cell sites have significant amounts of backup power - the physical size of the site, mast and cabinet allows this. As the world moves towards more and more cell sites, this will become more challenging - small cells are designed to fit into small spaces, as well as some indoor ones even being powered over the ethernet, and some with both power supply and backhaul not under the full control of the operator.

It would seem that some mandate for backup power should be limited by e.g. the maximum transmit power of the cell, and the obligation on the operator to provide reasonable coverage, even if they had to limiting peak data rates in order to keep user capacity up with a smaller number of cells 

joset01 12/5/2012 | 5:18:15 PM
re: Sandy: The Case for Better Cell Site Backup?

How well small cells would survive a major storm and be managed after was also a question at the 4G World show. I asked Cisco's Kelly Ahuju about that.

krishanguru143 12/5/2012 | 5:18:11 PM
re: Sandy: The Case for Better Cell Site Backup?

The problem with generators is that they are either going to run on a gas such as natural or propane or a liquid like gasoline or diesel.  Natural gas is not everywhere, how many homes in the Northeast still use heating oil?  So with the lack of natural gas in places, that leaves propane, gasoline or diesel.  The remaining three all have issues.  The pipes for propane could be damaged in a storm and leak propane fuel out; you also have an issue of refilling the tank after a storm.  The same holds true for gasoline and diesel, when the tank is empty, the tower is shutdown and you have to find a way to get the tank refilled.  That is easier said than done as the tower may not be accessible; downed trees, flooding, etc.  Carriers typically have portable generators and the site techs will drive let the generator charge the batteries backup and then move to the next site.  When you have a large number of sites that need attention, you don’t have the manpower or the generators to cover all of them.  It can take several hours or more to charge the batteries back up; so if it took four hours, the most you could do is less than six in any period unless you had multiple generators and then you might be able to get around twelve to eighteen.  Even that is not going to cut it, the techs are working non-stop.  Even with onsite generators, nothing says they would survive the storm either.  You also have that gasoline and diesel does go bad by just sitting in a tank.  Sure you can put fuel stabilizer in it; it still is not a good long-term solution.

Why not look at the power companies not be able to provide power.  Isn’t that really the issue?

krishanguru143 12/5/2012 | 5:18:10 PM
re: Sandy: The Case for Better Cell Site Backup?

Power being out causes more problem than just mobile phone service.  Hospitals, grocery stores, fuel stations, water.  If someone has electric water heater, electric stove/oven and their fridge is obviously electric, good luck with food.  You better have MRE’s or something else.


That is why I said there is no real solution.  There is more everyone can do but just looking at mobile carriers to get their cards in order is very unfair.  The wireless carriers could pool together and have one generator per site for all the carriers there, but you still run into natural gas availability issues or fuel going bad or having to refill the tanks before they are empty.  Taking a hit a 8 hours after the storm is no different than a hit the day following.  An outage is an outage.

Probably why you won’t see power companies being asked to fix their infrastructure, some are municipality owned and the government would never do anything that would cost them money, they would make sure they would be excluded.  Asking the power companies to fix their infrastructure would also mean rate increases and that would never be popular either.  The telcos are a sitting duck.

joset01 12/5/2012 | 5:18:10 PM
re: Sandy: The Case for Better Cell Site Backup?

So you're proposing fixing the power grid as a more realistic solution? Okay then...

The point is that many commercial sites have very limited backup. I don't think anyone is expecting the networks not to take a hit in this situation but its not like we haven't had storms in the North-East recently.

I do wonder why companies don't put more power lines underground though. I get that it is initially cheaper but for how long if you need to keep fixing them?

joset01 12/5/2012 | 5:18:10 PM
re: Sandy: The Case for Better Cell Site Backup?

I don't disagree that the grid and fuel utilities should be fixed.

But it's not like the carriers aren't also benefiting from a shared nationwide resource as well. Often to great profits.

vz 29.5 12/5/2012 | 5:18:09 PM
re: Sandy: The Case for Better Cell Site Backup?

Until we use a multi-fuel source generator such as a solar, wind turbine ,nat gas,220v,with a hand crank so we may take turns spinning the generator at each site,we may have to live within our eras limitations.How boring.Yours for site advancement.A malibu son.

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