Snowstorm Highlights Major Weakness in Wireless Cell Phone System in Connecticut



The late autumn snowfall has laid bare the Achilles heel of the wireless phone communication system in Connecticut.

With the widespread failure of Connecticut Light and Power Company’s electric grid caused by falling trees and limbs on Oct. 27, cell phone systems that relied on it for electric power fell silent in many areas.

Unlike the hardwired phone system built by Southern New England Telephone Co. over the decades since the telephone was invented, and that has centralized battery backup systems, each cell tower and switching station of the cell phone system operates independently and must have its own power source to operate if the electric grid fails.

With cell towers having no backup power in many areas of the state, those who have come to rely on its convenience found no signal bars on their phones, fully charged or otherwise. It wasn’t just personal calls that weren’t going through, the 911-system also took a hit.

State Sen. Andrew Roraback, a Republican who represents 15 towns in 30th District, said he was among those who lost electric, cable, cell and even the landline phone service in the late autumn snowstorm. He couldn’t use the landline service because the cordless phones connected to it require electricity to operate and stopped working when the lights went out.

Roraback, who lives in rural Goshen, said he figured that at least the cell phones would work because they don’t send and receive phone signals directly by wire. He and many others hadn’t realized that with no power the signals the calls just don’t go though.

“That is an issue we need to look into,” state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection spokesman Scott Devico said Tuesday. The storm didn’t affect the 911-system itself, Devico said, but the fact that the cell phone system connects an ever-growing number of people throughout the state and country to it is a concern.

The Federal Communications Commission, which sets the standards for the fast growing wireless communications industry, has long recognized this weakness and has written rules that encourage wireless communication companies and internet service providers that offer phone service to have an emergency backup power in the event the power grid fails as much of it did here after the snowstorm.

The FCC’s “Backup Power” rule of the Code of Federal Regulations as amended in 2007 looks good at first glance. It requires wireless exchange carriers to “have an emergency backup power source (e.g. batteries, generators, fuel cells) for all assets necessary to maintain communications that are normally powered from local commercial power, including those assets located inside central offices, cell sites, remote switches and digital loop carrier system remote terminals.”

But the mandate does not apply, as the rule is further explained, to companies with 500,000 or fewer subscribers or when it conflicts with other federal, state, tribal or local laws, risks lives or health, or is contrary to legal obligations or other agreements.

Dennis Schain, spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said there about 3,100 cell towers spread across the nutmeg state that are used by major cell phone providers AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile.

Some of these have “built in backup power that can last a relatively short period of time,” Schain said. With the grid down for an extended period, “more and more towers are not operating,” he said.

In the Tuesday/Wednesday time frame after the storm, Schain said, about one-third of the 3,100 towers were not operating. The lack of cell service was “especially severe” in the northeast and northwest corners of the state, he said, noting that with the state’s hilly terrain and the placement of the towers,  “cell phone service is not always optimal everywhere in the state even on best days.”

The “issue of reliability of cell phone service – backup power for towers – [is] something that will be looked at in various storm reviews now underway,” Schain said.

“Keep in mind, however, that cell phones are competitive, private businesses – not heavily regulated by state,” Schain said. “But we will work with companies to see what steps can be taken to assure fuller service in extreme weather events.”

Roraback, who lives in the northwest corner, said he intends to introduce legislation that will require cell towers to have backup generators in place to keep the system operating when the General Assembly reconvenes in February.

Roraback said regulators have held back on strict mandates for the wireless communication industry because it’s a relatively new market. The idea has been “let the market sort it out,” Roraback said.

“But when my grandmother goes out to buy a cell phone, she is not asking how many generators do you have?”

“When they install towers, the idea is to have a seamless system,” Roraback said. For public safety, “it’s imperative to have cell phones work.”

“When you need it most is when your life is on the line,” Roraback said, noting that that is likely to be during a widespread natural disaster like a hurricane or a storm like the one that hit on Oct. 29. “And then it doesn’t work?”

Related Topics: AT&T, Cell Phone, Nor’easter, October snowstorm, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon

8:09am on Monday, November 28, 2011

Those of us in the Public Safety community know that cell phones are not a reliable method of communications during natural or man made disasters (formerly known as terrorist incidents). Check the history, 9/11 in NYC and DC, OKC bombing, even during the recent earthquake which was centered in VA, cell networks were quickly overloaded in cities up and down the east coast including Hartford, CT. Even without interruption of power, the public cell networks couldn’t handle the volume of calls. Combine any large scale incident with a lack of sustained back up power to individual cell towers and you have just exacerbated the overloading problem on the cell sites that do stay powered. Having said that, I was very pleased with my Verizon voice cell service during the last storm. It stayed on for the duration of the power outage without fail. On the other hand, AT&T cell service in Granby failed in less than 24 hours after the power went down. As more people dump their wireline phones for cellular, the overloading problem will only get worse. As James Earl Jones once said, your cell phone service is only as good as the network that it is on. Verizon Wireless did a great job keeping the service up and reliable to those who needed it during the last storm. Thanks to all of you at Verizon for your efforts.


8:44am on Monday, November 28, 2011

My Verizon cell service was spotty in Tolland for a day or so during my 8 days without power. I also have a land line (AT&T) which was out of service for about 5 of the 8 days.

Maria Giannuzzi

9:19am on Monday, November 28, 2011

My AT&T land line phone in Windsor Locks worked throughout the power outage. It also was working during the outage caused by tropical storm Irene. I did not have reliable cell phone service until the Friday following the snowstorm. Lack of phone service during the power outage was a major, major issue, especially for those who had service through Cox or Comcast. My AT&T land line phone service was the only bright spot during those difficult days. I was able to stay in touch with family and friends in Windsor Locks with AT&T land line phones.


9:33am on Monday, November 28, 2011

My AT&T “Land Line” was okay Saturday thru Sunday- then went dead Sunday night until Friday (5 days without a phone)! Could not get a signal for my wifi computer the whole time of the outage. I just thank god I don’t have one of those electric cars!

James King

9:45am on Monday, November 28, 2011

State Senator Andrew Roraback, who (if I’ve interpreted the above wording correctly) lost the use of his telephone service in his home due to having only cordless phones that require electric power to operate, provides a great lesson for all of us: Even if you go cordless, keep a few old non-wireless phones gathering dust in a closet somewhere. Then you’ll be able to plug them in if you are faced with a situation in which the phone line to your house has signal, but you lack electric service.

Jim G.

9:53am on Monday, November 28, 2011

If you need dead-reliable phone service, there’s no choice except wired copper service from Ma Bell. It’s based on 100-year-old tech that will keep working even in extended power outages and other interruptions. Central Offices have massive backup power (in the day, it was a warehouse full of batteries).

If you’re going to save money or load up on features with digital phone service from AT&T, Comcast, Cox etc. you’re at the mercy of a whole distributed network of equipment remaining up and powered – not likely. We had Comcast service for the first 18 hours or so of the blackout and then – gone. Came back with the power, so it wasn’t a separate line issue. Sprint cel service remained available, although a bit erratic.

Bottom line, if you rely on your phones you can’t go with digital or cel over traditional wired.

Jack R.

4:12pm on Monday, November 28, 2011

I was disappointed when our AT&T cell service went dead for most of the power outage (maybe 7 or 8 days). We had to drive out a neighboring town to pick up a signal, retrieve messages and respond to calls before heading back into the dead zone. It makes sense for those towers to have backup generators. I think that’s what AT&T finally did to get the phones online again. Landlines will soon be extinct for most residences.

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