Cell Carriers Fight Backup Power Rule

Karl W4KRL W4KRL at arrl.net
Sun Mar 9 17:07:05 CDT 2008

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

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

"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

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.

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

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

AT&T, the nation's largest wireless carrier, would not comment on the FCC

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."

By DAVID TWIDDY     AP Business Writer

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