Cellular Power: Backup or Not?  

The FCC is now requiring telecom and wireless companies to provide 8 hours of backup power for cell sites and remote telecom facilities. Several cell phone companies opposed the FCC’s backup power regulations, claiming it would present a huge economic and bureaucratic burden.

There are almost 210,000 cell towers and roof-mounted cell sites across the country, and carriers have said many would require some modification. At least one industry estimate puts the per-site price tag at up to US$15,000.

Sprint Nextel 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 (pdf), pointing out that all the backup power in the world won’t help a cell tower destroyed by wind or wildfires.

Wireless carriers also are claiming the FCC failed to follow federal guidelines for creating new mandates and went far beyond its authority.

“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.

A panel of experts appointed by the FCC following Katrina was critical of how communications networks performed during and after the storm (pdf). Panel members recommended the FCC work with telecommunications companies to make their networks more robust. Regulators then created the eight-hour mandate, exempting carriers with fewer than 500,000 subscribers.

Miles Schreiner, director of national operations planning for T-Mobile, said 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.

“In urban areas, most of the sites are on rooftops and those sites weren’t built to hold that much weight,” Schreiner said.

The agency agreed in October that it would exempt cell sites from the rules but only if the wireless carrier provided paperwork proving the exemption was necessary.

It would give companies six months from when the rules went into effect to submit those reports and then another six months to either bring the sites into compliance or explain how they would provide backup service to those areas.

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