As millions of Texans struggle to survive in the wake of the state’s failing electrical grid, many have also been cut off from essential communications networks. According to the latest FCC data, somewhere around 302,793 wireless subscribers have been unable to access essential communications services as the area struggles to recover from historically cold weather.
Because they require broadband and power to function, the FCC states that another 33,331 Texas and Oklahoma residents have lost access to their internet voice (VOIP) services.
The crisis has left Texans dealing not only with freezing temperatures and no power, but challenges ranging from a dramatic spike in carbon monoxide poisonings to a lack of clean drinking water. A lack of communications infrastructure only makes recovery harder, especially after the storms disabled four 911 call centers in Texas and Oklahoma.
“Due to the interdependencies between power and communications service, power outages and rolling brownouts are forcing communications service providers to rely on backup power,” the FCC said. “However, icy roads are affecting their ability to refuel generators.”
While outlets like Fox News and the Wall Street Journal rushed to blame the massive power outage on the renewable energy sector, the real culprit appears to have been a lack of investment in natural gas reserves and infrastructure weatherproofing, issues the state’s power companies were warned about a decade ago—and subsequently chose to ignore.
A lack of competent regulatory oversight means power utilities weren’t forced to make essential investments in the face of a destabilizing climate. Experts say the cellular outages plaguing Texas’ wireless subscribers could have also been avoided with competent regulatory oversight.
In the wake of widespread cellular outages during Hurricane Katrina, in 2008 the FCC proposed new rules that would have required that all cellular towers in the United States have 8 to 24 hours of battery backup in the case of a prolonged power outage.
But the wireless industry, backed by the Bush administration, sued to successfully scuttle the rules, claiming that such requirements would place “a huge economic and bureaucratic burden” on wireless carriers. In one filing with the FCC, Sprint (now part of T-Mobile) proclaimed that such requirements would cause “staggering and irreparable harm” to the company.
"We find that the benefits of ensuring sufficient emergency backup power, especially in times of crisis involving possible loss of life or injury, outweighs the fact that carriers may have to spend resources, perhaps even significant resources, to comply with the rule," the agency stated in October of 2007.
But the U.S. wireless industry, which charges some of the highest rates in the developed world for mobile data, simply couldn’t be bothered to spend the necessary money to consistently climate-proof its infrastructure. Instead, they argued, industry self-regulation would be enough to protect American consumers from climate-triggered catastrophe.
But as subsequent hurricanes, wildfires, and the unfolding Texas disaster have percussively proven, such an approach isn’t working out so well. Particularly for America’s most marginalized communities, something painfully demonstrated by hurricanes Maria and Irma in 2017.
“Nobody likes to pay for emergency preparedness,” Harold Feld, a wireless policy expert and lawyer at consumer group Public Knowledge told Motherboard. “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.”
Instead, the Trump administration spent four years dismantling most meaningful oversight of U.S. telecom giants, leaving the government less prepared to protect consumers during a crisis. Or, as the case may be, a relentless series of compounding crises. Money that could have been spent on emergency preparedness instead went to massive, unwarranted tax cuts.
“Public safety in communications has always required regulatory oversight and public interest rules,” Ernesto Falcon, lawyer and telecom expert at the Electronic Frontier Foundation told Motherboard. “A private company on its own is not going to be able to rationally divide its profit motive with the expenses associated with public safety needs.”
Falcon notes that California faced similar problems in 2018 when firefighters, battling the historic Mendocino Complex Fire, found their mobile data plans throttled by Verizon after they surpassed their monthly data cap. Verizon’s first impulse was to try and upsell first responders to a more costly mobile data plan, before later admitting they’d made a tragic error.
“The state passed a law prohibiting data caps for public safety users in response,” Falcon said. “It would be logical for Texas to look at what failed during an emergency here and enact policy to remedy the shortfalls.”
But convincing regulators in states that don’t believe in climate change or corporate accountability that broader public safety regulations are essential is an uphill climb. As such, there’s likely to be a parade of similar tragedies before Americans learn from experience, and stop leaving life and death decisions exclusively in the hands of corner-cutting corporations.