Today U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer called for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to take the lead in developing a nationwide plan to ensure that cell towers don’t lose power for days or weeks in the wake of severe storms, terrorist attacks or other events that cause power failures. Schumer said that the FCC should work with industry and first responder groups to decide the best way forward that maximizes reliability, and minimizes costs and accelerates implementation time. He noted that approximately 33% of phone users now rely exclusively on wireless technology, and an estimated one out of every four towers in the impacted areas were down after Superstorm Sandy hit, leaving huge sections of impacted citizens struggling to effectively communicate during and after the storm’s impact.
Schumer was joined by Glenn DiResto and Dolores Orr, residents of Rockaway Beach; Long Beach City Manager Jack Schnirman; Long Beach Police Commissioner Michael Tangney; Long Beach Fire Commissioner Scott Kemins; Long Beach City Councilman Len Torres; Long Beach Police Officers Judy Arroyo and Stephanie Marra.
“Unimpeded cell phone service is a necessity for emergency workers and a lifeline for residents left without power,” said Schumer. “After Sandy hit, far too many impacted residents struggled to get service because far too many cell towers were rendered inoperable. In an age where many people only have cell phones, the bottom line is we must fix that problem ASAP. The FCC has the capability to develop a nation-wide plan to ensure that cellular service, a lifeline to residents without power and first responders, is not completely severed in the wake of a storm.”
Schumer noted that a nationwide plan to ensure the functionality of cell towers has long been discussed, but never implemented, partly because of cost and partly because of industry opposition. Today, Schumer said that the necessity of a plan is now clear, and will grow more important every day as more and more customers abandon wired telephone lines. Among the things Schumer suggested they consider are backup generators, alternate power sources, temporary towers and mobile trucks. Schumer also suggested they investigate ways to “harden” cell infrastructure, making it less susceptible to damage.
In the wake of the storm, people across the region suffered with no cell phone service.
“In neighborhoods of Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, Lower Manhattan, and Long Island, there was a virtual communications blackout, with residents struggling to find out vital information such as where disaster aid resources were located, and what had happened to their friends, family and neighbors. First responders were severely hindered as well – in Long Beach, for example, special equipment needed to be brought in so they could continue to communicate,” said Schumer. “When it comes to keeping our vital communications networks up-and-running, we can and must do better.”
The FCC closely tracked the health of the wireless network in the wake of the storm. In the immediate aftermath they estimated that approximately 25% of cell towers in the affected areas still faced outages. By the end of the week 19% percent still faced outages. Schumer said such high rates were dangerous, and a long term plan needed to be created to ensure better reliability.
Schumer noted that in the wake of the storm, telecommunications companies have contributed to the recovery, even while their offices have been severely damaged. Verizon’s headquarters at 140 West Street and major facility at Broad Street were both severely damaged by the storm. Some companies also provided mobile charging stations to residents who were impacted by Superstorm Sandy. The major carriers waived fees and set up mobile charging stations where customers could also make free calls and get free internet access. They also collaborated to open their networks to each others’ customers. And they worked to bring their towers back online as soon as possible.
In his letter Schumer wrote “Today, I’m asking you to convene all of the stakeholders in the telecommunications industry to develop a national plan to ensure communications can stay up and running in the event of a future natural disaster.”
A full copy of the letter is below:
Dear Chairman Genachowski,
During your tenure at the FCC, you have led the commission to historic achievements in public safety, including by successfully pursuing the dedication of national public safety spectrum. Today, I’m asking you to build upon this record of leadership by convening all of the stakeholders in the telecommunications industry to develop a national plan to ensure communications can stay up and running in the event of a future natural disaster.
Surveying the destruction in New York, it is hard to remember that Superstorm Sandy made landfall less than three weeks ago. At the same time, the memories are very fresh of the fear New Yorkers endured as the storm bore down upon the city and people hurried to evacuate. The damage of the storm was compounded by the distress New Yorkers faced as the communications systems upon which they have become reliant failed.
In New York, communications failures happened on two levels. First, when the power went out, cell towers without backup power went offline, rendering service spotty at best and in many areas virtually non-existent. By our best estimates, one in four cell towers were nonfunctional immediately after the storm. Second, even where the system was operational, consumers without access to power had no means to charge their devices; they were left entreating more fortunate friends and neighbors for not only a hot shower but also a functional power outlet. For the 33% of households that have no wired phone service, failures of cell phones leaves them with no means to communicate whatsoever.
And we don’t know the full extent of the failures. As Commissioner Rosenworcel has argued, “the Commission also owes the public an honest accounting of the resiliency of our nation’s network infrastructure.”
Of course, many in the telecommunications industry rose to the occasion to help distressed New Yorkers. The major carriers waived fees and set up mobile charging stations where customers could also make free calls and get free internet access. They also collaborated to open their networks to each others’ customers. And they worked to bring their towers back online as soon as possible.
These accomplishments don’t change the fact that at the height of the storm and in its immediate wake, thousands of New Yorkers were effectively cut off from communication. However admirable the after-the-fact efforts were, we can and we must do better on the front end. While we cannot prevent natural disasters, we can vastly improve our preparation in order to mitigate the damage they inflict. Specifically, all the stakeholders in the communications community must come together to identify weaknesses in our existing infrastructure and to develop a plan to ensure that our cell phone and internet systems can stay operational – or get back online as soon as possible – the next time a major storm comes our way.
I trust that, under your leadership, representatives from industry and consumer groups can come together to develop an effective plan that protects the population against crisis without compromising the business interests of the communications world.
Thank you for your attention to this critical issue. I look forward to working with you and your staff to address these problems moving forward.
Charles E. Schumer
(YWN Desk – NYC)