When Hurricane Katrina assaulted the Gulf Coast in 2005, wind and flooding knocked out hundreds of cell towers and cell sites, silencing wireless communication exactly when emergency crews and victims needed it.
To avoid similar debacles in the future, the Federal Communications Commission wants most cell transmitter sites in the U.S. to have at least eight hours of backup power in the event main power fails, one of several moves regulators say will make the nation's communication system stronger and more reliable.
Two and a half years after Katrina, and eight months after the FCC's regulations were first released, the two sides are still wrestling with the issue.
A federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., put those regulations on hold last week while it considers an appeal by some in the wireless industry.
Several cell phone companies, while agreeing their networks need to become more resilient, have opposed the FCC's backup power regulations, claiming they were illegally drafted and would present a huge economic and bureaucratic burden.
There are almost 210,000 cell towers and roof-mounted cell sites across the country, and carriers have said many would require some modification. At least one industry estimate puts the per-site price tag at up to $15,000.
In a request for the FCC to delay implementing the change, Sprint Nextel Corp. wrote that the rules would lead to "staggering and irreparable harm" for the company. The cost couldn't be recouped through legal action or passed on to consumers, it said.
Jackie McCarthy, director of governmental affairs for PCIA — The Wireless Infrastructure Association, said the government should allow the industry to decide how best to keep its networks running, pointing out that all the backup power in the world won't help a cell tower destroyed by wind or wildfires.
Carriers oppose ‘one size fits all’ approach
"Our members' position is that the 'one size fits all' approach to requiring eight hours of backup power at all cell sites really doesn't accomplish the commission's stated purpose of providing reliable wireless coverage," McCarthy said.
The wireless carriers also are claiming the FCC failed to follow federal guidelines for creating new mandates and went far beyond its authority when it created the eight-hour requirement last summer.
FCC officials have so far stood their ground.
"We find that the benefits of ensuring sufficient emergency backup power, especially in times of crisis involving possible loss of life or injury, outweighs the fact that carriers may have to spend resources, perhaps even significant resources, to comply with the rule," the agency said in a regulatory filing.
"The need for backup power in the event of emergencies has been made abundantly clear by recent events, and the cost of failing to have such power may be measured in lives lost," it said.----
A panel of experts appointed by the FCC following Katrina was critical of how communications networks performed during and after the storm. The group noted that service restoration was "a long and slow process."
Panel members recommended the FCC work with telecommunications companies to make their networks more robust. Regulators then created the eight-hour mandate, exempting carriers with fewer than 500,000 subscribers.
Wireless companies quickly complained about the regulations, calling them arbitrary and saying they would rob them of the flexibility to target backup power upgrades at the most important or most vulnerable cell sites in their networks.
They also said local zoning rules, existing leases and structural limitations could make it impossible to add batteries or backup generators to cell sites.
Miles Schreiner, director of national operations planning for T-Mobile, said it can take 1,500 pounds or more of batteries to provide eight hours of backup energy in areas with a lot of cell phone traffic.
"In urban areas, most of the sites are on rooftops and those sites weren't built to hold that much weight," Schreiner said.
Some carriers could be exempted
In regulatory filings, the FCC has said the wireless carriers chose to put their equipment in areas that can't be readily expanded. However, the agency agreed in October that it would exempt cell sites from the rules but only if the wireless carrier provided paperwork proving the exemption was necessary.
It would give companies six months from when the rules went into effect to submit those reports, and then another six months to either bring the sites into compliance or explain how they would provide backup service to those areas through other means, such as portable cellular transmitters.
CTIA-The Wireless Association and several carriers asked the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., to intervene, saying the exemptions would still leave wireless companies scrambling to inspect and compile reports on thousands of towers.
On Feb. 28, the court granted Sprint Nextel's request to stay the regulations while the case moves forward. Oral arguments are scheduled for May.
An FCC spokesman said the agency was disappointed with court's decision.
Not all carriers have joined the fight. Verizon Wireless is not a party to the appeal and has a history of installing backup generators and batteries to its cell sites. Most famously, during a 2003 blackout that kept much of the Northeast in the dark for hours, Verizon customers could still communicate.
AT&T, the nation's largest wireless carrier, would not comment on the FCC regulations.
McCarthy, whose organization represents both the wireless carriers and companies that lease space on their own cell towers, said her members worry that they will face a high hurdle to get exemptions.
"I don't think it's hyperbole or exaggeration to say if it gets to that point with specific sites it could lead to sites being decommissioned," she said.
"If the ultimate endgame is a site being turned off because of noncompliance, the area immediately around that site is going to have an immediate negative impact. It's going to hurt public safety from day one."