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Nor'Easter Highlights Major Weakness in CT's Wireless Cell Phone System

A rare autumn snowstorm raises doubts about the reliability of the wireless cell phone system in the event of a widespread power failure that's likely to occur during a natural disaster.

The late autumn snowfall has laid bare the Achilles heel of the wireless phone communication system in Connecticut.

With the widespread failure of Connecticut Light and Power Company’s electric grid caused by falling trees and limbs on Oct. 27, cell phone systems that relied on it for electric power fell silent in many areas.

Unlike the hardwired phone system built by Southern New England Telephone Co. over the decades since the telephone was invented, and that has centralized battery backup systems, each cell tower and switching station of the cell phone system operates independently and must have its own power source to operate if the electric grid fails.

With cell towers having no backup power in many areas of the state, those who have come to rely on its convenience found no signal bars on their phones, fully charged or otherwise. It wasn’t just personal calls that weren’t going through, the 911-system also took a hit.

State Sen. Andrew Roraback, a Republican who represents 15 towns in 30th District, said he was among those who lost electric, cable, cell and even the landline phone service in the late autumn snowstorm. He couldn’t use the landline service because the cordless phones connected to it require electricity to operate and stopped working when the lights went out.

Roraback, who lives in rural Goshen, said he figured that at least the cell phones would work because they don’t send and receive phone signals directly by wire. He and many others hadn’t realized that with no power the signals the calls just don’t go though.

“That is an issue we need to look into,” state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection spokesman Scott Devico said Tuesday. The storm didn’t affect the 911-system itself, Devico said, but the fact that the cell phone system connects an ever-growing number of people throughout the state and country to it is a concern.

The Federal Communications Commission, which sets the standards for the fast growing wireless communications industry, has long recognized this weakness and has written rules that encourage wireless communication companies and internet service providers that offer phone service to have an emergency backup power in the event the power grid fails as much of it did here after the snowstorm.

The FCC’s “Backup Power” rule of the Code of Federal Regulations as amended in 2007 looks good at first glance. It requires wireless exchange carriers to “have an emergency backup power source (e.g. batteries, generators, fuel cells) for all assets necessary to maintain communications that are normally powered from local commercial power, including those assets located inside central offices, cell sites, remote switches and digital loop carrier system remote terminals.”

But the mandate does not apply, as the rule is further explained, to companies with 500,000 or fewer subscribers or when it conflicts with other federal, state, tribal or local laws, risks lives or health, or is contrary to legal obligations or other agreements.

Dennis Schain, spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said there about 3,100 cell towers spread across the nutmeg state that are used by major cell phone providers AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile.

Some of these have “built in backup power that can last a relatively short period of time,” Schain said. With the grid down for an extended period, “more and more towers are not operating,” he said.

In the Tuesday/Wednesday time frame after the storm, Schain said, about one-third of the 3,100 towers were not operating. The lack of cell service was “especially severe” in the northeast and northwest corners of the state, he said, noting that with the state’s hilly terrain and the placement of the towers,  “cell phone service is not always optimal everywhere in the state even on best days.”

The “issue of reliability of cell phone service – backup power for towers – [is] something that will be looked at in various storm reviews now underway,” Schain said.

 “Keep in mind, however, that cell phones are competitive, private businesses – not heavily regulated by state,” Schain said. “But we will work with companies to see what steps can be taken to assure fuller service in extreme weather events.”

Roraback, who lives in the northwest corner, said he intends to introduce legislation that will require cell towers to have backup generators in place to keep the system operating when the General Assembly reconvenes in February.

Roraback said regulators have held back on strict mandates for the wireless communication industry because it’s a relatively new market. The idea has been “let the market sort it out,” Roraback said.

“But when my grandmother goes out to buy a cell phone, she is not asking how many generators do you have?”

“When they install towers, the idea is to have a seamless system,” Roraback said. For public safety, “it’s imperative to have cell phones work.”

“When you need it most is when your life is on the line,” Roraback said, noting that that is likely to be during a widespread natural disaster like a hurricane or a storm like the one that hit on Oct. 29. “And then it doesn’t work?”

sebastian dangerfield December 14, 2011 at 06:08 PM
I think Ed's point is the community needs more cell service. I agree. This latest move by the town to not only eliminate the possibility in ridgebury, but to use public money to do it, flies in the face of community, even if it offends your sense of aesthetics. I certainly empthisize with the hundreds who feel that their view might be less pleasing. I wish that those same hundreds would understand that in a community, it is sometimes , necessary, to make way for the greater good. It is the 2010's and like it or not, technology is advancing that requires in part some sacrifices be made. I understand you feel that sitelines are perhaps more important than a 911 call, but I dont agree.
Thomas Soukup December 14, 2011 at 10:35 PM
Lucca I've always appreciated the way you and I have communicated, though be it indirecectly. When I opened my post regarding this issue I said there were "many reasons" why I was not in favor of the cell tower trasnaction. This town simply can't buy up every piece of land to protect it's borders no matter what or the scale or reason for the project. I think I follow your lead in this regard. The communication technologies are on the cusp of making many advances within a very short time and yet those overly-eager to move forward have not considered the financial changes to the market place. Shortly after we voted on the Ridgebury Tower ,two major players were going to consolidadate to become one . This is stil in the works but what inmpact would this have made on the town's pay-back projections. I understand a great deal depending on the lawyers. I don't have the tech smarts to debate Mr Orson, but that's not my issue. As the financial reviews emerge I can only question if the town is presenting us withn all the choices. Rudy is not my party choice, however, I do feel he painted a good picture of the tower project though be it late in the game. Ron /Luca May God bless you all during this holiday season
sebastian dangerfield December 15, 2011 at 12:39 AM
Tomas, Thanks you May God Bless you as well! I hope you did not misunderstand. I said that I empathize with those who would be negatively affected by having a tower near their homes. I was not be facetious. I can see you might interpret it that way, since I said the hundreds. But that is simply pointing out that , yes it affects hundreds as opposed to several thousand that would benefit. As to the concept of buying up every piece of land, you are correct. I am adamantly opposed to that. However, I assume you realize that we do not need to buy up every piece of land to build one cell tower. The Schlumberger argument, meant that all vacant land, could be eyed as a potential 830g developer jewel, and I found that argument to be specious. I have been on the losing end of both of my concepts of what the town should do. I think the cell tower is good for the town as a whole (and yes, if I were you, I would try to find arguments why it should not be built. I dont blame you. I simply disagree. I also would imagine that if the cell tower were built 4 miles away from your home, you would not really be arguing in the same manner. One thing I wonder, and maybe Ron , who seems to have knowledge in this area, is if there a chance in the near future (near future meaning less than 5 years) that cell towers that are now maybe 80 feet tall and 2.5 feet in diameter may ultimately improve in efficiency to perhaps 50 feet and 1 foot- . Less unattractive.
Thomas Soukup December 15, 2011 at 02:04 PM
Luca Thank you for your most recent post. You have captured the essence of my argument in a candid and humble way. As always your posts give me points to ponder. If the cell tower site was 4 miles from my home, I most likely would not have gone out to vote. Having gone through the process,however, I would attend the town meetings regarding the new site and depending on the placement of the tower, I could vote either way. I am not anti-technology but remain sensitive to feelings of the homeowner. Most advocates of cell towers are concerned about emergency communications as in the case of the high school. A valid point, so I wonder about using the two meter ham band in these cases. The typical cell tower has a range of 2-3 miles while a small two meter repeater can broadcast 20-30 miles and can be battery powered. Ron Orson could most likely explain why this would or would not work for fringe area communications. I understand that not everyone is presently running around with two meter hand-sets but it might be worth while for the schools to invest in one. Emergency services may already have such transceivers on hand. Best wishes to all!
Ron orson December 15, 2011 at 10:47 PM
Their is a method called CUBE Technology. The antennas are the size of a Rubik Cube and are used for dead spots. They are not long range towers. You still need towers. The cubes are fed with fiber and they were invented by BELL LABS. They are like FEMTOCELLS which are also tiny antennas. In the future these tiny antennas will replace Towers but it will take years. If the cubes are perfected and they are light wave and progress is well under way. The towers will come down i am guessing. But basically CELL phones are line of sight. And mountains and height is the only answer with present technology. Higher is better basically.

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