Wireless Carriers Under Scrutiny After Sandy

T-Mobile and AT&T have cut an emergency deal to share their cellphone networks in areas affected by Superstorm Sandy. They're trying to make it a little easier for customers to get a signal as carriers restore their networks. Some say companies should be forced to make their networks more resilient.

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T-Mobile and AT&T have cut an emergency deal to share their cell phone networks in areas affected by Superstorm Sandy, trying to make it a little easier for customers to get a signal as carriers repair infrastructure and restore their networks. As NPR's Martin Kaste reports, some say companies should be forced to make their networks more resilient.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Erika Iverson lives in lower Manhattan and doesn't have a landline. She relies on her cell, but as of yesterday afternoon, she still didn't have the power to charge it.

ERIKA IVERSON: You are using up my precious minutes. But that's OK, because I just charged up my phone.

KASTE: Iverson had walked uptown 38 blocks to a friend's house to plug in and to take advantage of the somewhat better signal.

IVERSON: In general people are having a harder time connecting downtown, because whatever cell tower is just getting overwhelmed.

KASTE: The morning after the storm, the FCC said about 25 percent of cell sites were down in the region, but that's an average, with much bigger outages in parts of New York City and coastal New Jersey. Yesterday, FCC official David Turetsky said phone companies were working to bring towers back online.

DAVID TURETSKY: They have generators at many of their key locations, and they also stage generators that they can add in and bring to other locations as needed.

KASTE: But it's a slow process. After 24 hours, the number of offline cell towers had gone down, according to the FCC, only a few percentage points. And while some people have welcomed the fact that there's any cell service at all, post-Sandy, Harold Feld says we should expect better.

HAROLD FELD: I don't think we ought to settle for three quarters at this point.

KASTE: Feld is a senior vice president at Public Knowledge, a pro-consumer organization. He recalls that, following Hurricane Katrina, the FCC tried and failed to require eight hours of ready backup power at every cell phone site. Feld says it may be time to revisit that minimum standard.

FELD: You know, I don't want to say that the carriers are doing nothing here. And I know they're struggling to do their best. But the question is, is this really where we want to be for something, you know, that most people would now regard as the primary way that they're going to stay connected to emergency services in the rest of the world.

KASTE: In 2008, wireless companies sued to block the proposed rule. Chris Guttman-McCabe is VP for regulatory affairs at the industry lobbying organization, the CTIA. He says the backup power rule would have made it harder for companies to react to the storm.

CHRIS GUTTMAN-MCCABE: Having sort of a rigid rule removes the carrier's ability to be flexible and to relocate resources in the event of a storm like Hurricane Sandy.

KASTE: He says carriers don't need the government to tell them to keep their towers working; they want to stay on the air. But in the 2008 lawsuit, the industry went even further, claiming the FCC didn't even have the authority to impose the backup power rule. That question of authority was never answered in court, but it may very well come up again soon, if storms continue to disrupt wireless services that Americans now consider to be basic infrastructure.

Martin Kaste, NPR News.

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