California Wildfire Cellular Outages Could Have Been Easily Avoided

from the dysfunction-junction dept

As rolling blackouts and wildfires rattle California this week, many impacted residents are unable to use their cell phones. According to FCC data (pdf), 874 of the state’s 26,000 cell tower sites were out of commission on Monday, up from 630 on Sunday. Of that 874, 702 were caused by a loss of power to the cell site, 88 inoperable towers were due to cut fiber lines leading to the tower, and just 60 were caused by actual wind or fire damage.

It's a problem that could have been avoided. 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, if not 24 or more. 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 scuttle the rules.

Backed by the then Bush White House, cellular carriers told anybody who'd listen that the requirement would create "a huge economic and bureaucratic burden" for the industry. A better approach, the industry 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:

"While we have the same goal as the FCC - to keep our networks running during times of emergency - we believe that having the flexibility to adapt to unique emergency situations will better serve American wireless consumers," said CTIA President Steve Largent in a statement Monday."

Keep in mind that the US telecom sector has received countless billions for network upgrades that are routinely only half delivered, if they're delivered at all. More frequently, these companies gobble up tax breaks and regulatory favors, then proceed to engage in layoffs and fewer upgrades. In this case, the wireless industry didn't want to have to use those record profits and government subsidies to upgrade towers and protect lives, and here we are.

Experts tell me the same problem reared its head during Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, Irma, and Sandy. Yet somehow, government hasn't quite figured out that letting giant telecom companies unhindered by healthy competition self-regulate generally doesn't work out all that well when human lives are at stake:

“Nobody likes to pay for emergency preparedness,” Harold Feld, a wireless policy expert and lawyer at consumer group Public Knowledge told Motherboard. “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."

The Electronic Frontier Foundation notes that the same story has played out repeatedly on the state level. Fresh on the heels of convincing the FCC to self-immolate, the telecom sector has been trying to gut most California state oversight of broadband and wireless providers. As climate change accelerates and California attempts to impose meaningful public safeguards, it's getting harder for industry to justify its dream scenario of zero meaningful oversight:

"I think 2020 will be a very busy year at the state regulator to promote public safety rules over the telecom industry,” Falcon said. “This fire season and the number of people that had to be evacuated and rely on mobile devices for everything furthers the need to examine what works and address what is not working for people."

The idea that eliminating government oversight of the broken and barely competitive telecom sector somehow results in rainbows and Utopian outcomes is a common refrain in US tech policy, where protecting and improving carrier revenues trumps any and every other consideration. But time and time again, evidence shows that eliminating consumer protections, emergency requirements, and other forms of fundamental oversight of the largely broken sector doesn't end that well for anybody. If that lesson hadn't already been obvious watching cable companies do business, climate change will quickly make it more so.

With any luck, we might just actually learn something before it's too late.

Filed Under: battery backup, california, cell towers, fcc, fires, power, power outages, wildfires


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 31 Oct 2019 @ 9:30am

    Re:

    There would be no seatbelts in cars,or crash testing , if the car industry was run like telecoms in america.

    There were no seatbelts or crash testing, and the American car companies responded to the ideas with reluctance and hostility. See Unsafe At Any Speed by Ralph Nader. "Nader says that GM responded to his criticism of the Corvair by trying to destroy Nader's image and to silence him. … Senate hearings prompted by the book led to the creation of the Department of Transportation and the predecessor agencies of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 1966. … The book has continuing relevance: it addressed what Nader perceived as the political meddling of the car industry to oppose new safety features, which parallels the debates in the 1990s over the mandatory fitting of airbags in the United States, and industry efforts by the ACEA to delay the introduction of crash tests to assess vehicle-front pedestrian protection in the European Union."

    (And while the phone company was an overpriced monopoly at that time, the service was reliable even during power outages.)


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