How Big Telecom Killed Rules That Would Have Prevented Hurricane Ida Outages

Once again a lack of industry oversight and meaningful rules means the cellular industry wasn’t fully prepared for disaster.
August 31, 2021, 3:58pm
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Image: Scott Olson/Getty Images

As Louisiana residents dig out from underneath the massive damage caused by Hurricane Ida, many are having to do so without essential communications options. While such outages are becoming commonplace in the wake of climate change-fueled disasters, experts say many of the added headaches could have been largely avoided.

According to the latest report by the FCC, about 28.1 percent of the cell sites in the area impacted by Ida are offline, leaving hundreds of thousands of customers without service. Another 354,699 residents in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama remain without landline phone, cable, or broadband service. 

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Local power utilities state that roughly 888,000 locals are without power and may not be reconnected to the grid for weeks. Numerous Louisiana 911 systems also failed due to “antiquated AT&T technology,” leaving residents unable to access emergency services. Some local first responders were forced to use Facebook to keep residents informed. 

T-Mobile indicated the company’s wireless network was about 70 percent operational due to Ida’s impact. An initial report by AT&T indicated that the company’s wireless network in Louisiana was only 60 percent operational after the storm, thanks to power failures at cellular tower sites. 

“Do better AT&T,” tweeted one AT&T subscriber in Louisiana who complained that she was unable to reach friends and family due to cellular outages. 

Verizon, which has been notably more aggressive in deploying backup power to its cellular towers in the region, saw far less disruption than its competitors. Some local reporters for The Advocate noted their newsrooms switched away from AT&T after similar network reliability problems in the wake of catastrophic Louisiana flooding in 2016

Consumer groups say the now familiar post-disaster face plants of U.S. telecom networks are completely avoidable, and the direct result of industry lobbying to eliminate meaningful oversight of the sector on the state and federal level.

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Three years after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina caused widespread wireless outages, the FCC approved new rules requiring that all cell tower sites have a modest 8 hours of battery backup in the case of a power outage—effectively the bare minimum. 

Backed by the Bush White House, the cellular industry successfully lobbied to scuttle the rules, claiming they would have created “a huge economic and bureaucratic burden” for the industry. Sprint, now part of T-Mobile, complained at the time such rules would have created “staggering and irreparable harm” to the wireless industry. 

In short, the U.S. wireless industry, which charges some of the highest rates in the world for mobile service, didn’t want to pay for fairly modest reliability upgrades. The industry’s successful bid to dismantle those rules would come to haunt victims of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, as well as victims of California’s historic 2019 wildfire season.

Incompetence by the local power utility (PG&E) helped kickstart that year’s disasters, and incompetence by the regional telecom companies perpetuated it. Shortly after the fires, FCC data showed that nearly half a million wireless subscribers lacked access to wireless phone service, again thanks to a lack of reliable backup power at many tower locations.

“Nobody likes to pay for emergency preparedness,” Harold Feld, a wireless policy expert and lawyer at consumer group Public Knowledge told Motherboard at the time. “That's why you need rules to force companies to spend the money. Companies will spend as little as they think they have to, which is why regulators need to tell them how much they have to spend.”

None of this is unfamiliar territory for the U.S. telecom sector, where companies routinely neglect aging infrastructure despite billions in taxpayer subsidies, tax breaks, and regulatory favors. Instead of holding telecom operators more accountable for these failures, the trend has largely been to strip away both state and federal oversight of regional telecom giants. 

“After Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, both Congress and the FCC took a hard look at widespread outages,” Leo Fitzpatrick, a lawyer at consumer group Free Press, told Motherboard. “Instead of issuing a regulatory regime to address the identified vulnerabilities, such as a recommendation to require backup power on cell towers which carriers fiercely resisted, the FCC punted and put its faith in a voluntary regime devised by the industry.”

Time and time again, that faith has proven to be misplaced. As it was after hurricanes Irma and Maria caused widespread devastation in Puerto Rico, knocking 95 percent of the island’s cellular towers and 97 percent of its radio stations offline. Both the cellular industry—and the FCC—were heavily criticized for apathy and incompetence in recovery efforts. 

Despite repeated, obvious warnings that the status quo needs to change in the face of violent climate change, neither regulators nor industry appear to be getting the message. As a result, many of the nation’s telecom and power networks remain woefully unprepared for the challenges of today, much less the disasters of tomorrow.