Cell Carriers Fight FCC over Backup Power

Past disasters like Hurricane Katrina knocked out wireless communications and impacted emergency crews and victims when they needed to talk. To avoid similar losses of communications in the future, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) wants most cell phone transmitter sites in the U.S. to have at least eight hours of backup power in the event main power fails. Regulators claim this will make the nation’s communication system more reliable. Eight months after the FCC released this new regulation, the two sides are still fighting over the issue.

The federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., put an injunction on the rule as it considers an appeal by some in the wireless industry. The Cell companies claim the FCC’s backup power regulations were illegally drafted and would present a huge economic and bureaucratic burden. The United States has nearly 210,000 cell towers and roof-mounted cell sites across the country, many of which would require modifications. One industry estimate puts the per-site price tag at up to $15,000.

In a request for the FCC to delay implementing the change, Sprint Nextel Corp. wrote that the rules would lead to “staggering and irreparable harm” for the company. The cost couldn’t be recouped through legal action or passed on to consumers, it said.

Jackie McCarthy, director of governmental affairs for PCIA — The Wireless Infrastructure Association, said the government should allow the industry to decide how best to keep its networks running, pointing out that all the backup power in the world won’t help a cell tower destroyed by wind or wildfires.

“Our members’ position is that the ‘one size fits all’ approach to requiring eight hours of backup power at all cell sites really doesn’t accomplish the commission’s stated purpose of providing reliable wireless coverage,” McCarthy said.

Those fighting the regulation are also claiming that the FCC didn’t follow proper federal guidelines for creating new mandates and that it went far beyond its authority when it created the eight-hour requirement last summer. So far, the FCC is standing its ground and not backing down.

“We find that the benefits of ensuring sufficient emergency backup power, especially in times of crisis involving possible loss of life or injury, outweighs the fact that carriers may have to spend resources, perhaps even significant resources, to comply with the rule,” the agency said in a regulatory filing.

“The need for backup power in the event of emergencies has been made abundantly clear by recent events, and the cost of failing to have such power may be measured in lives lost,” it said

Wireless companies claim the FCC’s regulation will create problems in urban areas, where local zoning rules, existing leases and structural limitations could make it impossible to add batteries or backup generators to cell sites. It can take 1,500 pounds or more of batteries to provide eight hours of backup energy in areas with a lot of cell phone traffic. Many rooftop sites weren’t built to hold that much weight.

The FCC said it would exempt cell sites that can’t comply if companies can explain how they would provide backup service in those areas through other means, such as portable cellular transmitters.

CTIA-The Wireless Association and several carriers asked the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., to intervene, saying the exemptions would still leave wireless companies scrambling to inspect and compile reports on thousands of towers.

Jackie McCarthy, director of governmental affairs for PCIA, (The Wireless Infrastructure Association) said, “I don’t think it’s hyperbole or exaggeration to say if it gets to that point with specific sites it could lead to sites being decommissioned,” she said. “If the ultimate endgame is a site being turned off because of noncompliance, the area immediately around that site is going to have an immediate negative impact. It’s going to hurt public safety from day one.”