In an age where almost every aspect of our lives is dependent on the constant flow of electrons through our digital gear, a reliable source of electricity is a must. Especially when we’re talking about the electricity that powers the cell towers throughout the nation.
As we saw with the Hurricane Katrina disaster, cellular communications failures during a time of crisis prove dangerous to public safety. So, in a move to try and ensure that cell towers are still functional during a power outage, the FCC has drafted regulation that would require network operators to retrofit their cellular network with backup power supplies. The FCC would have carriers provide enough battery power for every cell tower in their network to operate for 8 continuous hours in the absence of on-grid power.
The problem with the FCC requirement is that the cost of these network retrofits would fall on the carriers’ shoulders – with no way to recoup the costs by passing on the expense to customers. A Washington D.C. federal appeals court has put an injunction on the regulation while it considers the wireless industry’s appeal.
Carriers are arguing that, of the 210,000 cell towers in the US, some free-standing and some roof-mounted, wireless operators would have to analyze network traffic on a per-site basis. Cell towers with heavier traffic would require more battery backup power, in some cases up to 1,500 pounds worth of equipment – which is a problem because roof-mounted cell towers are not likely to be built to withstand the added weight. Moreover, the cost of retrofitting an entire network with backup power supplies could hit something like $15,000 per site (tower).
“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 Jackie McCarthy, director of governmental affairs for PCIA, (The Wireless Infrastructure Association). “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.”
The wireless industry wants to decide on a case by case basis how to best deal with the issue of backup power supplies. An across-the-board solution isn’t applicable to all situations and could actually hurt the consumer and public safety. Aside from the incredible costs of retrofitting the cell towers, the FCC regulation would likely result in hurting public safety.
It might be more realistic to have state or federal governments subsidize backup power supplies at cellular towers. The FCC wants to ensure continued public safety, and it seems to me that public safety is the domain of government. In that vein, it could be argued that the responsibility to maintain communications in the event of a disaster lies solely with government, and so government-funded electrical infrastructure retrofits at cell tower sites could be more feasible. I’d say that resources could be siphoned from Iraq to make this happen, but that’s a box that I don’t want to open.