After Hurricane Katrina, in 2008 the FCC passed rules mandating that cellular towers be upgraded to include battery backups or generators capable of delivering at least 8 hours of backup power, basically the bare minimum for usefulness. But the US cellular industry, you know, the one whose rates are some of the highest in the developed world, cried like a petulant child about the requirement and sued to successfully scuttle the rules.
Backed by the then Bush White House, cellular carriers insisted that the requirement would create “a huge economic and bureaucratic burden” for the industry. A better approach, it proclaimed, would be to let the industry self-regulate and adhere to entirely voluntary guidelines, leaving it with the “flexibility” to adapt to problems as the industry saw fit. The U.S. government did what the industry asked because, well, that’s what U.S. telecom policy basically is now. And despite the fact this kind of industry ass kissing never works out particularly well, the country simply refuses to learn much of anything from the experience.
U.S. telecom policy failure has been apparent everywhere, most notably in telecom competition, reliability, customer service, and pricing. But it’s also abundantly obvious when it comes to disaster policy.
There have now been repeated examples where the industry’s failure to weather proof their infrastructure — and provide reliable backup power at cell tower sites — added insult to injury. Most notable among them was Hurricane Sandy in 2012, hurricanes Irma and Maria (which absolutely devastated Puerto Rico) in 2017, and the historic California wildfires of 2019. In every instance essential cellular service failed because many penny pinching companies weren’t willing to spend the necessary money to harden their networks in the face of climate change, and regulators didn’t genuinely hold them accountable.
Fast forward to this week, and the same story played out once again. About 40% of AT&T’s wireless network simply didn’t work in the wake of Hurricane Ida (unsurprisingly due to lack of backup power at many cell sites), leaving disaster victims unable to contact loved ones. Telecom policy experts keep pointing out that this is preventable, and that letting spending-averse telecom giants dictate U.S. policy on this subject isn’t wise:
“Nobody likes to pay for emergency preparedness,” Harold Feld, a wireless policy expert and lawyer at consumer group Public Knowledge told Motherboard at the time. “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.”
AT&T also provides much of Louisiana’s 911 infrastructure, and that failed too, leaving many locals unable to call 911 services. AT&T’s “antiquated technology” was blamed for the failures, which forced some local first responders to take to Facebook to urge locals to try and contact them directly (assuming their phones worked at all):
“The dispatch center’s new way of receiving 911 calls wasn’t ready. The district had signed a contract with AT&T for its ESInet online call-routing system last fall. But work on putting it in place is still months away. AT&T also holds the contract for delivering emergency calls to the 911 center over landlines and through conventional switching stations. That old technology — vulnerable to flooding and power outages — failed.
“The calls never got to the building,” Morris said.
Police and fire officials were still able to talk with dispatchers and each other — their old radio transmissions were not affected.
AT&T is the same company that just spent four years getting a Trump administration back rub, whether it was the $42 billion tax cut the company got for doing absolutely nothing, or the decision to lobotomize both state and federal telecom oversight because AT&T thought that might be a good idea. AT&T’s now tethered to both our intelligence gathering apparatus and our first responder emergency network. Effectively a part of government, this lets AT&T get away with an awful lot of grift and bullshit, routinely obtaining billions in taxpayer dollars for products (be it reliable cellular networks, 911 infrastructure, or fiber upgrades) that wind up routinely half delivered.
It’s not clear how many disasters we have to live through before we realize that it’s probably not a good idea to let telecom giants with a long history of penny pinching and fraud dictate US government telecom policy. Especially, apparently, disaster policy.