Most of the ire generated by Hurricane Sandy has been reserved for the power utilities (especially here on Long Island) and for Mother Nature. In general, the performance of the cable television and wireless companies has not gotten too much attention.
It may be more accurate to say that the cellular carriers were able to blend into the woodwork because of the Long Island Power Authority’s pathetic performance. But Verizon Wireless, AT&T and the other cell phone providers didn’t have a perfect record, either. The hurricane — which now apparently is universally referred to as “Superstorm Sandy” — took down almost 25 percent of cellular customers, according to the Associated Press. Some, according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), were without service for days.
The AP story reports that New York Senator Chuck Schumer has asked the FCC to require that cell towers have emergency power sources in anticipation of such storms. It’s a good idea and one that should be enacted. There are background and landscape issues about which the FCC, Schumer and others working through this issue are no doubt aware.
The first simply is that due to the evolution of the telecommunications industry, the need to keep the cellular network up and running is even more profound than many people assume. Until the advent of VoIP, home phones received enough power through the twisted pair of copper wires that connected them to the network. Voice service remained when home power failed.
This is an ideal situation, but one that is fading as VoIP replaces traditional “plain old telephone service,” or POTS. VoIP runs through a modem (generally provided by the service provider, most often the cable operator). These devices rely on power from the home. When the home goes dark, the phones go off.
Initially, cable operators and their vendors went to great lengths to back up their VoIP networks services. However, cellular took the country by storm during the same period that VoIP was displacing POTS. The near ubiquity of cellular phones took the pressure off the cable operators to focus on backup power. Why spend billions of dollars backing up landlines when virtually every family has at least one cell phone?
Thus, cellular has become the de facto backup for the voice business. This makes highly redundant cellular networks that are far more reliable than would be necessary a must.
Schumer is right to ask for backup power. But the number of cell towers operational at a given point in time is only one of several variables that together determine the percentage of people who have service.
Telecommunication networks use complex algorithms to determine how much infrastructure to support. Simply, years of doing business provide telecommunication carriers with a great idea of the number of cell towers and associated switches and other gear that are necessary to handle traffic on a placid Saturday afternoon or Monday night.
It doesn’t pay for the carriers to invest in infrastructure capable of handling emergencies. They just are too rare. Sandy is a case in point: The carriers had no incentive to build a network capable of supporting all its customers during and after the storm. It doesn’t make economic sense. That has to change, however, in light of the increasingly vital nature of the wireless network to public safety and security.
The second and related issue with which planners will need to grapple is the limits of the backup powering required. Will it be one secondary source (i.e., solar)? Several (solar and natural gas)? The bottom line is that the FCC will need to set rules on whether backup powering would last for the duration of the absence of the primary energy source or for a set amount of time. That will dictate the technologies used.
The good news is that the technology tools aimed at keeping cell phone users up and running are growing more sophisticated. It is entirely possible that these approaches — which include the Internet working between cellular and Wi-Fi networks, mesh networking and emerging small cell techniques — will be utilized to extend backup capability.
Senator Schumer is on target with his request of the FCC. It will be interesting to see if it is just a politician talking or if he is serious — and if what he asks for goes far enough.