FCC, cell companies clash over rules on towers’ backup power

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — 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., recently put those regulations on hold 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.

“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.

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.

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.

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 but Verizon customers could still communicate.

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