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.
Feld said the tussle demonstrated how telecommunications laws are out of sync with the behavior of consumers, who expect their handheld devices to be as reliable as landlines, which are subject to regulations ensuring they work in emergencies. The problem is only becoming more acute, he noted, as more people depend on wireless and broadband technology: About 33 percent of American households now rely solely on cellphones.
Schumer contends that the FCC should work closely with industry this time around to avoid the sort of push-back it faced after Katrina.
“If we need legislation, we’ll do it,” Schumer said in an interview. “Now we’re having everyone work together, and we expect a proposal in about six months.”
Rep. Anna G. Eshoo, D-Calif., welcomed the upcoming FCC field hearings but said through a spokesman that Congress “should conduct its own examination.” She and other Energy and Commerce Democrats on Nov. 19 called for a hearing by the panel about the outages.
Rosenworcel, who served as communications counsel for the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee before being sworn in at the FCC in May, said she is open to congressional review of the issue.
“We should start looking at our statute to make sure we can serve the public interest,” she said in an interview.
But Rosenworcel also urged caution about pursuing regulation, saying the agency should work with carriers to determine what is needed. In addition to addressing “hard questions about backup power,” she said officials could help wireless companies access fuel for generators during supply shortages and better coordinate with state and local authorities during emergencies.
“I don’t see this necessarily as an issue of regulation or legislation or changing rules or changing laws,” she said. “I think the first thing we need to do is figure out what’s happened.”
Wireless companies are likely to agree with the commissioner on that point. Since the storm, CTIA has praised carriers for restoring networks quickly, given the devastation that the group’s vice president, Christopher Guttman-McCabe, has described as reaching “near Biblical proportions.”
Guttman-McCabe said part of what worked was the flexibility wireless companies had to react — absent regulations or rules that would have controlled their response. He noted that an eight-hour backup power rule would not have been a panacea during the East Coast storm, when power was out in some areas for multiple days.
“There’s no greater incentive that a policymaker can give to a carrier to keep up its network than its own incentive to make sure that its customers have access to that network,” he said.