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Another Voice: Wireless carriers need to improve backup systems

By Greg Slabodkin

A lot of people take wireless service for granted. Just ask the millions of Americans on the East Coast who were recently caught in the path of Hurricane Sandy and lost power and consequently cellphone service when they needed it most. According to the Federal Communications Commission, 36 percent of U.S. homes are wireless. However, the downside of wireless networks is that they require electricity to operate and the loss of cell service is an all-too-real danger when the power goes out.

Public safety officials have talked about the need for robust mobile communications networks that enable relief efforts during natural disasters and emergencies. After Hurricane Katrina caused widespread cellphone outages in 2005, the FCC attempted to require wireless carriers to install backup batteries at all of their network sites.

Shamefully, the wireless industry used its considerable resources to threaten a legal fight and the Bush administration backed down in another example of the government allowing private interests to trump the public’s interests. While the major carriers say it is in their own best interest to bolster their networks and make sure they are operational in emergencies, apparently this “self-interest” is not enough for them to take concrete steps to provide backup power for their cell towers.

According to the FCC, 25 percent of the cell towers in Hurricane Sandy’s path did not operate. Not surprisingly, a Wall Street Journal article found that wireless carriers released little data about how their networks actually performed following the damaging storm. “While electric utilities publish regular updates on the number and location of customers without power, carriers have made only vague statements about the state of their networks,” the article stated.

Over the past decade, Americans have come to expect that they cannot rely on wireless service to be available during emergencies, as evidenced by recent natural disasters as well as the 9/11 terrorist attacks. This is unacceptable. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the FCC needs to revisit the issue and aggressively pursue impactful rules that would force wireless carriers to take proactive, not reactive, measures to ensure continuity of operations in the event of natural disasters and emergencies.

Lives are at stake and the American people deserve no less from their government. We can and should expect agencies like the FCC to watch out for the safety and welfare of the general public, especially since the major carriers are looking out only for themselves. Natural disasters like Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy have happened before and they will no doubt happen again. Hopefully, the next time our nation faces such a crisis our wireless networks will be ready.

Greg Slabodkin of Kenmore writes about mobile technologies and applications.