Post Tech Transitions

The California Wildfires Show Why We Need a National Backup Power Mandate to Keep Americans Connected During Disasters

October 1, 2020 , , , , ,

You’ve all seen the pictures. The West Coast is turning orange because of raging wildfires. Many were forced to quickly evacuate their homes, not knowing if they would have something to come back to. Hikers were stranded, not knowing if they would be rescued before burning alive because the winds shifted suddenly and the fire moved faster than they ever could have imagined. Others could barely go outside because the smoke inhalation was unbearable. 

Electric companies may shut off power preemptively in order to slow the spread of wildfires. Unfortunately, because cell towers rely upon electricity, this leaves many people without cell phone service when they need it most. How do you call for help as a stranded hiker staring down a fire — without cellular service? How do you know if a fire is heading towards your home and you need to evacuate if you don’t have service? How can you call a medical professional about smoke inhalation, check in on loved ones, or navigate road closures as you are fleeing burning neighborhoods without service? You can’t. Of course, there is a simple fix to ensure that cell phones have service during these critical times — backup power. That’s why we believe there should be a national law or regulation requiring backup power for essential communications equipment — including cell towers. 

Backup power comes in the form of large batteries, generators, or fuel cells. While carriers usually have backup power sources at most “key” sites, they are not at every site. In California, 77% of cell sites don’t have backup generators. When there is no fixed backup power, the carriers will instead deploy portable generators to provide backup power to cell towers. However, portable generators are not without risk. After Hurricane Maria, AT&T had to fly generators to Puerto Rico — leaving residents without service in the interim. In other cases, natural conditions can make it difficult or impossible to get the portable generators where they need to go. If roads are blocked with downed trees, workers won’t be able to reach the cell tower. If the tower is in a fire evacuation zone, it would be irresponsible to send communications workers into it to install a backup generator. 

To date, there is no national requirement that broadband providers have backup power of any sort (fixed or portable) for cell towers, or other necessary communications equipment (although there is a rule requiring landline providers to give subscribers the option of buying a 24-hour backup power solution at the point of sale). The Federal Communications Commission tried to implement a rule requiring eight hours of backup power after Hurricane Katrina — but it was fought by the carriers in court, and later rejected by the Office of Management and Budget on procedural grounds. To our knowledge, California is the only state with a state-mandated backup power rule. The rule was supported by consumer advocates, utilities, and local governments. However, wireless carriers are fighting it even as fires rage, preferring to avoid any backup power regulation. Whatever their preference, surely the cost of backup power pales in comparison to the value of the human lives at stake. 

We need a national backup power policy to force broadband providers to offer reliable service when consumers need it most. A national policy could require 72 hours of on-site backup power for all essential communications equipment. This time frame would ensure that most power outages or natural disasters don’t lead to network outages. According to the Government Accountability Office, the median duration for wireless outages attributed to power failure is 13-26 hours, and the median duration of outages attributed to natural disasters ranged from 19-36 hours. According to the Independent Panel Reviewing the Impact of Hurricane Katrina on Communications Networks, “the duration of power outages outlasted most generator fuel reserves, leading to the failure of otherwise functional infrastructure.” Something similar happened during previous California wildfires — backup power was either unavailable or didn’t last long enough. In addition, a 72-hour backup power rule would align with the FCC’s rule requiring 72 hours of backup power at Central Offices that route calls to 9-1-1. Although the average outage is less than 72 hours, our nation’s networks should be prepared to last for longer outages. There is too much on the line. 

Thus, we urge the FCC to take action to ensure that our nation’s cell towers and other communications infrastructure has the power it needs, on-site, to ensure that consumers have service when they need it. If the FCC won’t act, Congress should. The RESILIENT Networks Act requires providers to “take reasonable and technically feasible measures to integrate backup power” into their networks, along with many other resiliency concerns, so we urge Congress to pass this as a first step towards having reliable backup power during outages. We simply can’t allow for outages during times of national disasters.

Image credit to skeeze from Pixabay.


About Jenna Leventoff

Jenna is a Senior Policy Counsel, where she focuses on promoting Public Knowledge’s mission through government affairs. Prior to joining Public Knowledge, Jenna served as a Senior Policy Analyst for the Workforce Data Quality Campaign (WDQC) at the National Skills Coalition, where she led WDQC’s state policy advocacy and technical assistance efforts on state data system development and use. She also served as an Associate at Upturn, where she analyzed the civil rights implications of new technologies, and as Manager and Legal Counsel of the International Intellectual Property Institute, where she led the organization’s efforts to utilize intellectual property for international economic development. Jenna has also held internships with the American Civil Liberties Union and Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH). Jenna received her J.D, cum laude, and B.A from Case Western Reserve University. In her free time, Jenna enjoys yoga, international travel, and experimenting with new recipes.