Ida Spurs demands strengthening of wireless networks after phones fail

(Bloomberg) – As Hurricane Ida hit New Orleans, officials told residents needing help to report a police officer or go to a fire station. The city’s 911 emergency call service, served by AT&T Inc., was not functioning.

The failure, rectified Monday afternoon, helps fuel calls for regulators in Washington to demand greater resilience of mobile phone networks in the face of storms, fires and other natural disasters.

“We depend on the voluntary cooperation” of companies to share network facilities with affected competitors, said Harold Feld, senior vice president of the Public Knowledge policy group, in an interview. “We must have a mandatory structure. “

The carriers dispatched teams and equipment to the disaster areas. AT&T said it operates 13 mobile phone towers, while many parts of its wired network relied on backup power. Verizon Communications Inc. said it was “in depth in the recovery and support efforts” with minimal downtime for most customers.

The FCC said Monday night that Hurricane Ida destroyed more than half of the cell phone towers in the storm-affected parts of Louisiana. The agency does not specify the performance of each company’s network.

The FCC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In New Orleans, calls to 911 for help went unanswered for 13 hours, according to the political group Free Press.

“AT&T, which local governments have contracted to ensure emergency calls reach the 911 call center on landlines, has not worked,” the group said in a statement Tuesday.

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell said Monday afternoon that emergency phone services had been restored.

Jim Greer, an AT&T spokesperson, when asked about the 911 outage, directed a reporter to an AT&T web article indicating that the company’s network in Louisiana was operating at more than 85% of normal.

The FCC must investigate major disruptions and develop rules to strengthen communications networks, Free Press said in its statement.

“While the new network of levees surrounding New Orleans has been maintained, the Internet and telephone networks in the city and surrounding parishes have not functioned,” said Vanessa Maria Graber, director of new voices at Free Press, in an email.

Outages due to past storms and forest fires have raised questions about the resilience of the telephone network.

There is no requirement for cell sites to have backup power. Industry has resisted efforts to make this mandatory, arguing it would be onerous, in part because it can be expensive to rent space for equipment and difficult to obtain permits to store fuel at. certain places.

In decades past, phones at the end of copper lines could provide service, even during widespread blackouts, if a nearby hub managed to get power, possibly from a generator.

Cell phones are now ubiquitous and often serve as home phones, leaving households vulnerable to blackouts.

After Hurricane Michael passed through the Florida Panhandle in 2018, the FCC said in a report that the recovery of phones had been slowed down by a lack of coordination between operators, with power companies who sometimes cut restored lines. and localities.

In 2016, the agency approved a commitment from the wireless industry to promote the resilience of their networks in times of disaster by taking action, including letting calls flow over others’ networks.

Jilane Rodgers Petrie, spokesperson for CTIA, a business group in the wireless industry, did not immediately respond to an email request.

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