Hurricane Gustav (Times-Picayune coverage & Wikipedia), the tropical storm bearing down on the Gulf Coast, could be a test for the country’s wireless carriers, which faced criticism and a regulatory push after Hurricane Katrina took out networks.
Sprint Nextel’s Emergency Response Team, with trucks that can act as cell towers, was “caravaning down, military-style,” to the Gulf Coast on Friday. In 2007, Sprint installed permanent generators at more than 1,300 sites throughout the Southeast and Gulf Coast.
Verizon Wireless and AT&T, the main landline phone company in the region and the country’s largest wireless carrier, have added capacity and replaced some cables with optical fiber, to resist flooding.
While cell towers may survive a hurricane, their electrical power and connection to the larger network, often do not. After Katrina, the FCC sought to mandate that almost all cell sites in the U.S. have at least eight hours of backup power in the event main power fails.
But that requirement was disputed by the wireless industry association CTIA, as well as Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile USA. The carriers said the FCC failed to follow federal guidelines for creating new mandates and went far beyond its authority in creating the requirement. Requiring each cell site, even in areas that aren’t disaster-prone, to have its own backup power is expensive and robs them of the flexibility to deploy generators in more sensitive areas, they said.
Verizon Wireless says all of its cell sites have batteries that will power them for at least eight hours. Many of them also have generators that kick in when the batteries run down, and have fuel for five to seven days, according to the company. Of the 59 new cell sites Verizon Wireless has set up in the Gulf Coast area since the start of 2007, 85 percent have their own generators.
AT&T said its cell sites in hurricane-prone areas have generators that will power them for up to 36 hours, and it has been topping up the fuel in their tanks this week.
Sprint said it spent $59 million in 2007 to boost its hurricane preparedness, in part to install generators at 1,300 cell sites in the Southeast and on the Gulf Coast. It spent additional $140 million in the first six months this year to reinforce the network in the Gulf Coast states.
Gustav could be a communications challenge for emergency responders, who remain split up on incompatible networks. The FCC wanted to tackle that problem by setting aside radio spectrum to be operated by a private company for a national emergency network, but the spectrum band failed to find a bidder in an auction this year.
Tropical Storm Gustav was near Jamaica on Friday, and forecasters said it could hit the Louisiana coast at the beginning of next week as a major hurricane.
The Tech Club is an initiative of NTEN with the support of the Meyer Memorial Trust. Also joining them, from Washington D.C., will be Justin Perkins, the Nonprofit Services Director of Care2, the largest online social network empowering civically active people to “make a difference.”
Dailywireless has more on emergency communications and public service communications including NY State’s Public Service Net: Failure?, Inmarsat F3 Successfully Launched, Minneapolis WiFi Breaks Even, Minneapolis Bridge Collapse & Emergency Communications, Public Service Users Talk Interop, Broadband, Hurricane/Tsuanmi Satellite Access , Katrina Telcom: One Month Later, FCC Talks Katrina and Katrina Telecomunications Report.