AT&T's 911, Cellular Networks Face Plant In Wake Of Hurricane Ida

from the oh-look,-this-again dept

After Hurricane Katrina, in 2008 the FCC passed rules mandating that cellular towers be upgraded to include battery backups or generators capable of delivering at least 8 hours of backup power, basically the bare minimum for usefulness. But the US cellular industry, you know, the one whose rates are some of the highest in the developed world, cried like a petulant child about the requirement and sued to successfully scuttle the rules.

Backed by the then Bush White House, cellular carriers insisted that the requirement would create “a huge economic and bureaucratic burden” for the industry. A better approach, it proclaimed, would be to let the industry self-regulate and adhere to entirely voluntary guidelines, leaving it with the “flexibility” to adapt to problems as the industry saw fit. The U.S. government did what the industry asked because, well, that’s what U.S. telecom policy basically is now. And despite the fact this kind of industry ass kissing never works out particularly well, the country simply refuses to learn much of anything from the experience.

U.S. telecom policy failure has been apparent everywhere, most notably in telecom competition, reliability, customer service, and pricing. But it’s also abundantly obvious when it comes to disaster policy.

There have now been repeated examples where the industry’s failure to weather proof their infrastructure — and provide reliable backup power at cell tower sites — added insult to injury. Most notable among them was Hurricane Sandy in 2012, hurricanes Irma and Maria (which absolutely devastated Puerto Rico) in 2017, and the historic California wildfires of 2019. In every instance essential cellular service failed because many penny pinching companies weren’t willing to spend the necessary money to harden their networks in the face of climate change, and regulators didn’t genuinely hold them accountable.

Fast forward to this week, and the same story played out once again. About 40% of AT&T’s wireless network simply didn’t work in the wake of Hurricane Ida (unsurprisingly due to lack of backup power at many cell sites), leaving disaster victims unable to contact loved ones. Telecom policy experts keep pointing out that this is preventable, and that letting spending-averse telecom giants dictate U.S. policy on this subject isn’t wise:

“Nobody likes to pay for emergency preparedness,? Harold Feld, a wireless policy expert and lawyer at consumer group Public Knowledge told Motherboard at the time. ?That’s why you need rules to force companies to spend the money. Companies will spend as little as they think they have to, which is why regulators need to tell them how much they have to spend.?

AT&T also provides much of Louisiana’s 911 infrastructure, and that failed too, leaving many locals unable to call 911 services. AT&T’s “antiquated technology” was blamed for the failures, which forced some local first responders to take to Facebook to urge locals to try and contact them directly (assuming their phones worked at all):

“The dispatch center?s new way of receiving 911 calls wasn?t ready. The district had signed a contract with AT&T for its ESInet online call-routing system last fall. But work on putting it in place is still months away. AT&T also holds the contract for delivering emergency calls to the 911 center over landlines and through conventional switching stations. That old technology ? vulnerable to flooding and power outages ? failed.

?The calls never got to the building,? Morris said.

Police and fire officials were still able to talk with dispatchers and each other ? their old radio transmissions were not affected.

AT&T is the same company that just spent four years getting a Trump administration back rub, whether it was the $42 billion tax cut the company got for doing absolutely nothing, or the decision to lobotomize both state and federal telecom oversight because AT&T thought that might be a good idea. AT&T’s now tethered to both our intelligence gathering apparatus and our first responder emergency network. Effectively a part of government, this lets AT&T get away with an awful lot of grift and bullshit, routinely obtaining billions in taxpayer dollars for products (be it reliable cellular networks, 911 infrastructure, or fiber upgrades) that wind up routinely half delivered.

It’s not clear how many disasters we have to live through before we realize that it’s probably not a good idea to let telecom giants with a long history of penny pinching and fraud dictate US government telecom policy. Especially, apparently, disaster policy.

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Companies: at&t

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Comments on “AT&T's 911, Cellular Networks Face Plant In Wake Of Hurricane Ida”

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Anonymous Coward says:

So how about this, AT&T… We mandate emergency preparedness measures, but leave it to you to implement them. And if at any time your infrastructure fails because you failed to implement the measures we mandated, you surrender ownership of that infrastructure to the FCC, who will then implement your measures and rent your infrastructure back to you.

No? We could just take it now, you know… Oh, and taking a page from the DA’s handbook, you’re already getting a break … if you contest this, you will also owe penalties that should cover our legal costs.

Anonymous Coward says:

‘Companies will spend as little as they think they have to’ but this isn’t the real problem. the real problem is the members of Congress who, yet again, put peoples lives in jepody by taking ‘contributions’ from the likes of AT&T, allowing them to get away with,literally, murder! until these politicians, the lobbyists and the top management of these companies are brought out into the open and held to account, nothing will change! i have to ask, though, how many people have to die and how much money has to be spent in picking up the pieces from these disasters when things could have been put in place, preventative measures could have been taken to save lives, to save property and get things back more to normal, so much quicker, just to line the pockets of certain people instead?

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Ninja (profile) says:


There’s a reason why a large parts of infrastructure networks need to be State owned and maintained. It’s glaringly obvious by now that the private sector will not spend even the bare minimum if and they will charge the absolutely maximum possible if left unregulated. 911 and emergency systems should be maintained by the govt end of the story. And public services act competition and prevent exactly what is happening in the US in many, many fronts from telecom to healthcare. But that’s too communist for America.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Allow AT&T to spend as little as they want on emergency backups BUT made them both state-level and federally liable if anyone is hurt or dies…..

Suddenly upgrading those towers doesn’t seem so bad, when little Timmy stubs his toe, can’t phone an ambulance….now Timmys mommy gets to sue Atrocious Turd and Twat, as does the hospital for lost ambulance charges etc!

Then the flood of 600,000 other lawsuits heaves into view.

Anonymous Coward says:

Oddly enough, old POTS technology is some of the most resilient tech when it comes to disasters. Lines can go down, but if you don’t put your switching on the first floor and battery farm in the basement in a flood zone…

Then the only problem is that almost no one is routed over copper anymore.

No one described what this antiquated tech actually is, though. Could be anything. newer tech could be as good as long as they keep enough power around to pump signal during and outage, as noted. It’s a lot more power though.

ECA (profile) says:

Telecom vs cellphone

For companies that have PUSHED, people out of hardlines into the cellphone system, its amazing how much that Saved because they dont have to update all that copper lines to DSL.
Insted of updating all these small towns along the freeway/highway system, just use cellular. That can cover more then just those in the towns but along the freeways system.
WOW, what a con. Do less and get more money for it. Anyone have an operator system? I think most of that is gone also. It now costs money to use it, but is there a location that has everyone’s Names and number Outside of their own system? Just as bad as the old days when in many places calling across the street could be long distance on another system.(same system just not from your side of the street). Anyone still getting roaming fee’s?

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

They’ve helped kill 600K citizens and are getting very little pushback and we think they give a shit about more people dying because a corporation needed more profits than to do their job?

They are telling you who they are, why do you refuse to believe them?
They are willing to allow us all to die as long as they can still get donations.

ECA (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I cant go there, as my mother recently passed, and during the last 3 months have called 911 on my cellphone AND it didnt go thru. IT dont Dial 911, it opens a program that handles things, and it DUMPED me. It was then repaired by the Cellphone company, and When I needed it AGAIN, it didnt work AGAIN. Should have gone to a lawyer and had LOTS of fun, but let Cellphone company Fix the program, and I even tested it 2 times at different times to make sure it worked.
Those times it didnt work I grabbed my Mothers Clamshell OLD cellphone and dialed DIRECT.

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