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Snowstorm Highlights Major Weakness in Wireless Cell Phone System in Connecticut

A rare autumn snowstorm raises doubts about the reliability of the wireless cell phone system in the event of a widespread power failure that's likely to occur during a natural disaster.

 

The late autumn snowfall has laid bare the Achilles heel of the wireless phone communication system in Connecticut.

With the widespread failure of Connecticut Light and Power Company’s electric grid caused by falling trees and limbs on Oct. 27, cell phone systems that relied on it for electric power fell silent in many areas.

Unlike the hardwired phone system built by Southern New England Telephone Co. over the decades since the telephone was invented, and that has centralized battery backup systems, each cell tower and switching station of the cell phone system operates independently and must have its own power source to operate if the electric grid fails.

With cell towers having no backup power in many areas of the state, those who have come to rely on its convenience found no signal bars on their phones, fully charged or otherwise. It wasn’t just personal calls that weren’t going through, the 911-system also took a hit.

State Sen. Andrew Roraback, a Republican who represents 15 towns in 30th District, said he was among those who lost electric, cable, cell and even the landline phone service in the late autumn snowstorm. He couldn’t use the landline service because the cordless phones connected to it require electricity to operate and stopped working when the lights went out.

Roraback, who lives in rural Goshen, said he figured that at least the cell phones would work because they don’t send and receive phone signals directly by wire. He and many others hadn’t realized that with no power the signals the calls just don’t go though.

“That is an issue we need to look into,” state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection spokesman Scott Devico said Tuesday. The storm didn’t affect the 911-system itself, Devico said, but the fact that the cell phone system connects an ever-growing number of people throughout the state and country to it is a concern.

The Federal Communications Commission, which sets the standards for the fast growing wireless communications industry, has long recognized this weakness and has written rules that encourage wireless communication companies and internet service providers that offer phone service to have an emergency backup power in the event the power grid fails as much of it did here after the snowstorm.

The FCC’s “Backup Power” rule of the Code of Federal Regulations as amended in 2007 looks good at first glance. It requires wireless exchange carriers to “have an emergency backup power source (e.g. batteries, generators, fuel cells) for all assets necessary to maintain communications that are normally powered from local commercial power, including those assets located inside central offices, cell sites, remote switches and digital loop carrier system remote terminals.”

But the mandate does not apply, as the rule is further explained, to companies with 500,000 or fewer subscribers or when it conflicts with other federal, state, tribal or local laws, risks lives or health, or is contrary to legal obligations or other agreements.

Dennis Schain, spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said there about 3,100 cell towers spread across the nutmeg state that are used by major cell phone providers AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile.

Some of these have “built in backup power that can last a relatively short period of time,” Schain said. With the grid down for an extended period, “more and more towers are not operating,” he said.

In the Tuesday/Wednesday time frame after the storm, Schain said, about one-third of the 3,100 towers were not operating. The lack of cell service was “especially severe” in the northeast and northwest corners of the state, he said, noting that with the state’s hilly terrain and the placement of the towers,  “cell phone service is not always optimal everywhere in the state even on best days.”

The “issue of reliability of cell phone service – backup power for towers – [is] something that will be looked at in various storm reviews now underway,” Schain said.

 “Keep in mind, however, that cell phones are competitive, private businesses – not heavily regulated by state,” Schain said. “But we will work with companies to see what steps can be taken to assure fuller service in extreme weather events.”

Roraback, who lives in the northwest corner, said he intends to introduce legislation that will require cell towers to have backup generators in place to keep the system operating when the General Assembly reconvenes in February.

Roraback said regulators have held back on strict mandates for the wireless communication industry because it’s a relatively new market. The idea has been “let the market sort it out,” Roraback said.

“But when my grandmother goes out to buy a cell phone, she is not asking how many generators do you have?”

“When they install towers, the idea is to have a seamless system,” Roraback said. For public safety, “it’s imperative to have cell phones work.”

“When you need it most is when your life is on the line,” Roraback said, noting that that is likely to be during a widespread natural disaster like a hurricane or a storm like the one that hit on Oct. 29. “And then it doesn’t work?”

Sandy November 29, 2011 at 03:39 PM
I have had a non-wireless phone for years for just such a situation, but in the storm Irene and Alfred,I lost the land line almost immediately..what was that all about? I have never had that happen before thru all the other outages in the past! My cell was spotty on Monday of Alfred,which was scary because I could not get out of my driveway yet. and fortunately the cell service improved by Tuesday,still scary...
Sandy November 29, 2011 at 03:42 PM
Per my comment above...I have had ATandT landline forever..no digital,just plain old landline...and lost that in both storms for the duration of the storms after the first day of each event (with a non-wireless phone)...so what is the explanation of that loss of power both times??????
Jim G. November 29, 2011 at 03:52 PM
Even landlines can catch a tree branch. The difference between traditional landlines and digital service is that the former will stay up and working as long as the connection remains, whereas the digital stuff went down as soon as their backup power failed, even though the connections were undamaged.
Ed November 30, 2011 at 05:32 AM
Sandy: Jim is exactly right. Our landline remained working through the whole ordeal despite the fact that the cable serving our neighborhood was laying in the street being run over by cars and trucks for five days. We just lucked out and the cable didn't get cut. We had no power, but our landline never stopped working. You were just unlucky and the cable serving your neighborhood did catch a tree.
Sandy November 30, 2011 at 02:03 PM
My neighborhood has underground wiring so no wires got caught by a tree,but the nearest cross street is above ground and that is where some tree did the damage.....

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