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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?”

Sander Pool November 29, 2011 at 02:32 PM
Oh, one more thing. To some extent the free market works in this regard. It is clear that T-mobile is a crappy budget phone service, at least around here. It's first to fail and last to be turned on. Verizon seems to have done better. I will have to switch services. Just as I'll have to drop Comcast cable (which failed in both cases) and switch to ATT ADSL to keep internet going.
Sander Pool November 29, 2011 at 02:44 PM
Weird, my original reply (rant) didn't make it. Roraback shouldn't really tell cell phone operators to have the 'foresight' to put backup power on their towers. He doesn't even have the foresight to buy a $5 wired un-powered phone to use in case the power fails. Besides, his party is the champion of deregulation and while I don't know his voting record his comment about the markets sorting things out suggests he's a dereg champion as well. Not so nice when that dereg hits you personally, eh?
Thomas Soukup December 12, 2011 at 01:36 PM
And this is one of the many reasons why we folks in Ridgefield voted down the Ridgebury cell tower. I may have been without power for a week but my hard wired phone worked.
Ron orson December 12, 2011 at 05:32 PM
Only because the T3 was operating by the roadside generators. Their is no more hard wired land lines any moe. They run off FIBER. The cell towers have battery backup but do run down after a while. Normally every cell tower has multiple phone companys sharing the tower. Remember the phone companies are DE REGULATED.
Ron orson December 12, 2011 at 05:35 PM
And this is one of the many reasons why we folks in Ridgefield voted down the Ridgebury cell tower. I may have been without power for a week but my hard wired phone worked. Totally incorrect. No one uses hard wired land lines any more. Unless you happen to be less than 2 miles from the CO. Either way fiber or twisted pair you need repeaters in the line and or drop. And they need electricity. So your statement about hard wired if factually incorrect.
Thomas Soukup December 12, 2011 at 06:24 PM
Ron Why the conflict,I don't pretend to be an engineer with all the tech talk. Hard wired is an antiquated term,but my point is unchanged.
Ron orson December 13, 2011 at 12:03 AM
Sir are you more than 2 miles from the CO. If so you are not twisted pair. And if you are or not the Trunking is fiber. Trunking has been fiber for years. So telling people your hard wired phone worked because it is twisted is factually incorrect and has nothing to do with a cell tower. If you are a twisted home runner which i doubt. You would not be able to dial out of the CO if the rest of the network was down. And it was not because of the pole generators you may have noticed at the base of the poles. You need power to operate the repeaters and the T3 or your T1 drop. So what is your point. I guess you voted against the tower. Which this town needed desperately. Cell service in parts of this town are sketchy at best. That tower would have been the answer to the cell drop out rate. Ridgefield needs a tower and that one was the best solution on a technical issue. Not a personal issue as you so clearly pointed out. You knowledge of phone transmission is not very good.
S December 13, 2011 at 12:52 AM
Land lines get their power from the phone lines. I have AT&T and had my phone the entire time the power was out. Note that you must plug in an "old fashioned" phone...that is one that is not cordless.
Sander Pool December 13, 2011 at 01:06 AM
Everyone with a land line should have a $5 (ok, $10 in Ridgefield and $25 at ACE :) simple touch tone phone that does not require wall power to operate. We have Vonage and Ooma but also an ATT land line for the alarm system and to have a direct line to our local 911 dispatcher. We have simple touch tone phones both up- and downstairs for this line. Power used to come from large 48V battery banks at the branch station. About 10 years ago I worked on T1/DS3 switches and they were required to run on 48V DC so they would stay operational if the power went out. Of course these days the rules may have changed and perhaps not all telco equipment is DC powered anymore, I don't know. Certainly no amount of battery and generator backup power can compensate for phone lines that are strung along poles just waiting for a falling tree to take them down. It will be much cheaper to make our cell phone network more reliable than to fix our wired network, unfortunately. Of course I'm not holding my breath that this will actually happen. People have short memories and will soon forget the lessons we should have learned.
Ron orson December 13, 2011 at 02:10 AM
OK once again their is noi such thing as twisted pair non repeater or fiber links. all phone service is Fiber. Their is not enough capacity on the poles in this town to supply phone service with old fashioned twisted and repeater technology. Just because you do not have a phone plugged in to an outlet you still need 48 Volts talk battery and 105 volt 20 cycles ring voltage. Or do you think the gnomes do this. The network is designed to provide this through repeaters every 2 miles. In Manhattan the central offices are placed within the 2 mile limit ans is the only place that i know of that does not need repeaters for twisted pair. They use loaded and un loaded cables to accomplish this. With Fiber twisted pair is totally obsolete. If you noticed during the 2 power outages the generators on the bottom of the poles. That is necessary to power up the fiber and repeaters. So if you did not loose your phone during the storms it was because your drop was powered up and not because of twisted pair which is obsolete other than connecting to the digital fiber network. Does this settle it!!!
Thomas Soukup December 13, 2011 at 05:17 PM
Ron: This demonstrates you have above knowledge of the workings of today's present phone technology. But quite frankly your tone is a bit condescending, which for someone as bright as you, simply isn't necessary. I enjoy the patch as it gives me the opportunity to learn from others and share my thoughts. Unfortunately, self expression often takes on a negative tone and puts people on the defensive. I do appreciate your detailed overview,however There is the old story about the man who got tired of telling people what time it was. He resolved the problem by prefacing his answer with a detailed explanation of how his pocketwatch worked. The answer took so long that soon people just passed him by.
Ron orson December 13, 2011 at 11:12 PM
No that is not the case you used the cell tower and your dislike for it as a pawn. That is why i responded to you. Because your answer was for your dislike of the tower which we desperately need. Now if you want to get in to cell service i can enlighten you beyond your wildest dreams. So you as a novice voted down a cell tower that is needed beyond your wildest dreams. But it is people that do not do the research and vote either in or out on subjects they should not be involved in. Basically you voted down a tower that is needed and should have been built. But then again you may have other reasons for denial. So when posting about issues it is good to have the facts. And i don't post here to make friends. I post ro inform people on subjects i know about. Thank You
Thomas Soukup December 14, 2011 at 12:52 PM
Ron I don't need to be an MIT grad to tell you the tower was ugly and I didn't want it in my backyard....and that's a fact !
Ed Tyrrell December 14, 2011 at 01:24 PM
The following letter appeared recently in the Ridgefield Press. To the Editor: The night before Snowtober, I started choking at home after swallowing too much, too fast. My wife, a nurse, came home a little later, and took me to the emergency room at Danbury Hospital. I wound up being admitted and stayed until noon on Sunday. When the doctor told me I could go home I had no way of reaching my wife because we had no power, no phone, and I live in one of those places near the High School that has no cell service. Eventually my wife came to the hospital and realized she could take me home. What if I had no electric that Friday night and needed to use a cell phone to call 911. What if during the days my electric was out, we had another emergency? Maybe I would not be the one writing this letter. So, the next time you are looking up at that beautiful ridgeline you fought so hard to preserve, think about how you are going to feel when the emergency is at your house and you are trying to call for help on a cell phone because it is your parent, your wife, or your child who desperately needs help, and not some faceless letter writer. Ed Tyrrell 17 Pond Road
Thomas Soukup December 14, 2011 at 01:51 PM
Ed You make a great point,but I can only report the fact that my cell service which generally works from my ridgebury location,be it only one bar, did not work during the storm. My antiquated plug-in phone did. Ron's posts explain why this system worked. I am pleased to hear you recovered.
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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