BLACKOUT: The Cost of Wireless: Less Reliable

The recent power outage in much of Southern California taught cell phone users a discomfiting lesson: Cell phones aren’t a substitute for old-fashioned wired phone service.

Not only are the technologies different, but cell phone carriers aren’t required to keep backup power for their sites, say observers and federal and state regulators. By contrast, traditional landline carriers must meet regulatory standards for their service and switching stations, or “central offices” in industry-speak.

AT&T, which provides both varieties, said its wired phone service emerged virtually unscathed during the outage in San Diego County. All 67 of the company’s central offices kept functioning during the outage, said spokesman John Britton. But service was temporarily interrupted at several hundred cell phone sites in the county, company spokesman Tom Gable said.

As people and businesses become increasingly dependent on wireless phones, even eliminating their wired service in some cases, they become increasingly vulnerable to wireless service disruptions.

After the much more serious disruptions caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Federal Communications Commission’s “Katrina panel” suggested reliability standards. The FCC required cell phone carriers to maintain a minimum of 24 hours of backup power at locations inside central offices, and eight hours for equipment off-premises, including cell sites.

However, the requirements were reversed in federal court, said Lauren Kravetz, an FCC spokesman.

Meanwhile in California, the Public Utilities Commission set aside its own examination into wireless service reliability standards, said Regina Costa, telecommunications director for the consumer advocacy group TURN, The Utility Reform Network.

The result is that neither state nor federal regulators require any power reliability standards for wireless carriers, Costa said.

“The essential point is that telecommunications services need to work in emergencies,” Costa said. “In the most dire circumstances, they should be reliable and work. And they didn’t.”

The FCC took up the matter again in April, Kravetz said. The commission issued a “Notice of Inquiry” seeking comment on the reliability of U.S. telecommunications services, including broadband and voice-over-Internet.

In California, the commission launched an educational campaign last year to tell consumers that some of the newer telecommunications services may require battery backup to work.

Traditional landline phones don’t need utility electricity, because they run off a separate power source from the carriers. However, cordless phones use a base station that does run on utility power and requires a battery backup. Other services, such as voice-over-Internet, also require a battery backup.