Widespread damage to the U.S. cell phone system after Hurricane Sandy may lead to more sympathetic public attitudes to regulators watching over how providers prepare and respond to emergencies.
Even if telecom providers are successful at resisting any new regulations, it is likely they may agree to some additional voluntary measures.
For example, during the storm AT&T and T-Mobile USA shared networks in the New York-New Jersey region at no additional cost to the consumers.
In the past, there has been an environment in place where many judges, regulators and other public officials were hesitant to impose regulations on cell phone, digital, cable and other technology providers.
“We don’t want to burden them with these very heavy obligations, “ was the way many regulators were thinking about the new technology, Harold Feld, senior vice president of Public Knowledge, a consumer advocacy organization, said in a telephone interview with TechZone360.
For instance, in California a new law basically blocks most state regulations on VoIP communications, TechZone360 reported. Similar laws exist in other states. They basically say, “Hands off anything Internet,” Feld said.
In addition, the Washington D.C. Circuit court basically pressured the FCC from going ahead with plans to require cell towers to have eight hours of back-up power. During oral arguments, a few of the judges challenged the FCC over whether they had the authority to impose such a regulation and claimed the agency failed to consider the cost to the industry, Feld said.
Pro-business advocates worry that new technology needs time to grow without regulation. The technology is also a source of job growth at a time when unemployment remains a concern.
But Feld would like to see the government, whether on a state or national level, put together a coordinated plan among carriers. He liked the voluntary sharing of networks between AT&T and T-Mobile. That could be expanded upon, where all carriers could share networks during an emergency.
In fact, after the Sept. 11 attacks first responders were allowed to take over network capacity, so there is a similar precedent.
Some other ideas include: regulators finding out emergency plans when network representatives meet and communication providers filing a communication plan and list a contact person for the company.
With these kinds of steps, there will be improved speed and a more efficient response to emergencies, every time they happen, Feld said.
“We don’t have to relearn this stuff every time a disaster occurs,” Feld said. “There are times you need somebody in a position of authority (saying) this is the game plan for emergencies.”
He explains that new laws, like the one in California, lead to problems when there is a need to organize local plans and local responses; a need to find out emergency plans from companies; and the need to ensure there will be a coordinated response and sufficient back-up sources in case of outages.
As many as 25 percent of U.S. cell phone towers went out of service from Hurricane Sandy. That led to providers trying to install back-up power at many sites. Typically, back-up generators at cell phone towers have fuel to last between 48 hours and 72 hours. Or, portable generators can be used for two additional days, if the towers can be reached by crews, which may not be the case due to storm damage.
Feld also said that the hurricane illustrates how Plain Old Telephones (POTS) made up of the copper-wire lines, are more reliable in storms than cell service. That’s because they are independent power lines and reliability is built into the system, Feld said.
But now with cell networks, VoIP systems and other newer forms of technology being used increasingly, the reluctance to regulate the industry may need to be revisited.
“There’s definitely more interest in moving this forward,” Feld said.
He disagrees with industry officials who tend to say that storms like Katrina, Sandy or the one in July, which knocked out 911 services, are isolated events.
They are happening with greater frequency. Some even blame climate change.
Of course, an event like the flooding of Verizon offices in New York is something for which it is very hard to prepare. “Nothing is going to save you,” Feld said about the damage to the Verizon offices from storm surge.
There is no doubt that the telecom sector took a major hit from Sandy. The hurricane may cost cable companies and telephone networks some $550 million to $600 million for repairs and clean up, according to an analyst’s estimate reported by Reuters. It may be another two weeks before Verizon can restore services to customers, Reuters added.
Feld recalled that when the government started regulating AT&T one of the things built into the system was reliability.
“This was the whole justification for AT&T’s monopoly,” Feld said. Also, telecom businesses have been claiming that it doesn’t make sense to continue to maintain legacy networks. But given the storm-related outages, the copper networks can be viewed as an important back-up resource.
Feld says that a solution could be found that is more flexible, with different delivery systems.
“We have to re-evaluate our way of thinking,” Feld said. “There needs to be some adult supervision and ground rules when things go wrong. Peoples’ lives depend on this stuff. It’s more and more about everyday life.”
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