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After Sandy, Questions Linger Over Cellphone Reliability

Apr 29, 2013
Originally published on April 29, 2013 11:07 am

Roughly one in four cellphone towers in the path of Hurricane Sandy went out of service. It was a frustrating and potentially dangerous experience for customers without a landline to fall back on. Now, local officials and communications experts are pushing providers to improve their performance during natural disasters.

Lori McCaskill lives in Brooklyn, and when Sandy hit last October, her Verizon cell service went out. She couldn't work. She couldn't check in with family and friends. Her sister was due to have a baby any day.

"I realized, oh, if there's actually an emergency, I don't know if a call would get through," she says.

Cellphones Off The Grid

In the city of Long Beach, N.Y., all the cell towers went down during Sandy. City Manager Jack Schnirman described the experience at a recent Federal Communications Commission hearing on how cellphone networks held up, or didn't, during the storm.

"There was one woman in particular who passed away, of natural causes, an elderly woman," he said. "And her daughter had to walk literally a mile and a half from her home to police headquarters just to say, 'Listen, my mom has passed, and I thought I should tell somebody.' "

To prepare for the next disaster, Schnirman wants better access to "Cell on Wheels," or COWs. They're cell towers that can be moved from place to place. He wants backup power, like generators, at cell towers. And he wants better access to the cell providers themselves. He said he didn't even know whom to call during Sandy.

"The city's IT department flagged a Verizon tech off the street to help us find out who in Verizon could help; we needed to get somebody to come and help us," Schnirman says.

Wrong Assumptions

One of the problems is that cell companies, unlike power companies, are not required to tell the public where their networks are down or how many customers are affected.

Susan Crawford, a professor at Cardozo Law School, says assumptions that competition would force the carriers to provide reliable service are wrong.

"We assumed that cable would compete with phone, phone would compete with wireless, and that therefore we didn't need to have this whole superstructure of regulation," she explains. "It turns out that we were wrong."

These problems are growing as more and more people drop their landline phone service. Currently, more than a third of households rely solely on cellphones. Crawford's home is among them.

"I'm speaking to you on a cellphone because I don't have a landline at home," she says.

A Shifting Communication System

After 2005's Hurricane Katrina, federal regulators did try to mandate that each cell tower have backup power. But the carriers challenged that rule in court and it was rolled back.

Crystal Davis works in crisis communications for Sprint Nextel, the only major carrier that agreed to be interviewed about Sandy. She says a battery typically provides about four to six hours of additional power to a cell site.

"In terms of a permanent generator, that can give you an extra day or two," she says.

The problem is, in some places after Sandy the power was out for weeks.

Jamie Barnett, the former chief of the FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, says backup power aside, there's a bigger issue here. As many calls move from copper wires onto the Internet, Barnett says, the FCC's role is in question.

"The carriers have questioned whether or not the FCC has authority over broadband, basically Internet-based communications," he says. "Well, that's the way all communications are moving."

Barnett says most calls these days — landline and cellular — will be processed through the Internet at some point. So he thinks limiting the FCC's authority over broadband would be a big deal, and could lead to a lot more instances of "can you hear me now?"

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

You may recall, after Hurricane Sandy, that many people walked for blocks or miles, just to get Internet service. During that storm, a quarter of the cellphone towers in the path of it went out of service, a frustrating and potentially dangerous experience for those customers without a landline.

Reporter Tracy Samuelson looks at efforts to improve the performance of cell networks during natural disasters.

TRACY SAMUELSON, BYLINE: Lori McCaskill lives in Brooklyn and when Sandy hit, her Verizon cell service went out. She couldn't work, couldn't check in with family and friends, and her sister was due to have a baby any day.

LORI MCCASKILL: I realized oh, if there's actually an emergency, I don't know if a call would get through.

SAMUELSON: In the city of Long Beach, Long Island, all the cellphone towers went down during Sandy. City manager Jack Schnirman described the experience at a recent FCC hearing on how cell networks held up, or didn't, during the storm.

JACK SCHNIRMAN: There was one woman particularly who passed away, of natural causes, an elderly woman, and her daughter had to walk, literally, a mile and a half from her home to police headquarters just to say, listen, my mom has passed, and I thought I should tell somebody.

SAMUELSON: To prepare for the next disaster, Schnirman wants better access to cells on wheels, called COWs. They're cell towers that can be moved to place to place. He wants backup power, like generators, at cell towers. And he wants better access to the cell providers themselves. He said he didn't even know who to call during Sandy.

SCHNIRMAN: The city's IT department flagged a Verizon tech off the street to help us find out who in Verizon could help, we needed to get somebody to come and help us.

SAMUELSON: One of the problems is that cell companies, unlike power companies, are not required to tell the public where their networks are down or how many customers are affected.

Susan Crawford is a professor at Cardozo Law School. She says we assumed competition would force the carriers to provide reliable service.

SANDY CRAWFORD: We assumed that cable would compete with phone, phone would compete with wireless, and that therefore, we didn't need to have this whole superstructure of regulation. It turns out that we were wrong.

SAMUELSON: And these problems are growing as more and more people cut their landlines. Right now, over a third of households rely solely on cellphones, including Crawford's.

CRAWFORD: I'm speaking to you on a cellphone because I don't have a landline at home.

SAMUELSON: After Hurricane Katrina, the FCC did try to mandate that each cellphone tower have backup power. But the carriers challenged that rule in court and it was rolled back.

CRYSTAL DAVIS: Typically, a battery will give about four to six hours additional power to a cell site.

SAMUELSON: Crystal Davis does crisis communications for Sprint Nextel, the only major carrier who agreed to be interviewed about Sandy.

DAVIS: In terms of a permanent generator, that can give you an extra day or two.

SAMUELSON: The problem is, in some places after Sandy, the power was out for weeks.

Jamie Barnett is the former chief of the FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau. He says backup power aside, there's a bigger issue here: As many calls move from copper wires onto the Internet, Barnett says the FCC's role is in question.

JAMIE BARNETT: The carriers have questioned whether or not the FCC has authority over broadband, basically Internet-based communications. Well, that's the way that all communications are moving.

SAMUELSON: Barnett says most calls these days, landline and cell, will at some point be processed through the Internet. So he thinks limiting the FCC's authority over broadband would be a big deal and it could mean a lot more "can you hear me now?"

For NPR News, I'm Tracey Samuelson in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.