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Storm Clouds Hang Over Cellphone Backup Rules

Darren McCollester/Getty Images
After 25 percent of cell towers became inoperable in the areas hit by superstorm Sandy, wireless companies worked with the FCC and disaster agencies to restore service.

Former Senate staffer Jessica Rosenworcel has been described as shy, but the recently confirmed Federal Communications Commission member sounded the alarm after superstorm Sandy left huge swaths of the East Coast without cellphone coverage.

“It is time for an honest conversation about network reliability in the wireless and digital age,” she said in a pivotal Nov. 13 speech. “It is time to ask hard questions about backup power, and how to make our networks more dependable when we need them most.”

The next week, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., cited Rosenworcel’s speech in a letter he wrote to the FCC urging it to develop a plan for improved coordination and reduced outages during future disasters. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski responded swiftly with plans to hold field hearings on the matter. House Democrats requested congressional hearings as well.

Rosenworcel revived a debate about what authority Congress has granted regulators over wireless companies. The issue first played out following Hurricane Katrina, when the FCC tried but failed to mandate backup power generators for cellphone towers.

Although Congress has clearly provided the FCC with authority over traditional landline phones, the rules are murkier surrounding wireless. As the commission mulls taking action in the aftermath of Sandy, lawmakers are facing pressure to clarify what ability the agency actually has to do so.

“Congress can make sure that the FCC’s authority to enforce standards is clear and unambiguous,” Harold Feld, senior vice president of consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, said in an interview. “That authority has been repeatedly challenged by network operators.”

After 25 percent of cell towers became inoperable in the areas hit by Sandy in late October, wireless companies worked with the FCC and disaster agencies on a voluntary basis to restore service. Rivals AT&T and T-Mobile even agreed to carry each other’s signals, but other companies notably did not.

If the FCC had greater authority, it could demand that wireless companies develop emergency plans, coordinate during disasters and be held accountable afterward for mistakes. But the agency has faced resistance when it tried to assert such control.

Wireless companies and the industry association CTIA sued over the backup power rule the FCC adopted in 2007 after Katrina, questioning the agency’s authority to issue such a mandate on carriers. Before a court could rule, the Office of Management and Budget objected that the FCC had failed to incorporate public comments in the regulation, and the commission retreated.

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