FCC proposal would require carriers to report cell tower outages in wake of disasters

The FCC voted Thursday to adopt draft rules that would require carriers to publicly disclose the percentage of cell sites within their networks that are working during and immediately after disasters.

The draft rules, which the FCC adopted on a 2-1 vote, grew out of a series of field hearings that the FCC held in the wake of Hurricane Sandy last year. At the height of Hurricane Sandy last fall, 25 percent of cell sites in 158 counties in 10 states from Virginia to Massachusetts were not operational. It took about a week for most service to be restored by all four Tier 1 carriers in the affected areas. Many cell sites switched to backup generators when the power went out, but those backups soon faltered because they ran out of fuel.

Under the proposal, which the FCC invited public comment on, carriers would be required to submit to the FCC, for public disclosure on a daily basis during and immediately after disasters, the percentage of operational cell sites for each county within a designated disaster area. Carriers already do so voluntarily, but the information is confidential and part of a larger data set.

"The primary proposal in this Notice of Proposed Rulemaking does not dictate what methods wireless providers should use to harden their networks," Acting FCC Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn said. "Those decisions are best left to industry. But what would create greater transparency is information on carrier performance that, up to now, has not been publicly available. This would empower the public to hold wireless providers accountable for the results of those decisions."

Republican Commissioner Ajit Pai broke with Clyburn and Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, arguing "there's no particular correlation between the percentage of inoperable cell sites and the coverage and capacity maintained by a provider during a disaster." Rosenworcel said one disabled macrocell would cause more connection problems than 10 downed small cells. "And not all emergencies are natural disasters--in fact, most are not," he said. "Thus, highlighting the performance of providers in select counties during only a few disasters each year sheds little light on the day-to-day reliability that may be more important for saving lives."

CTIA also seemed cool to the proposal. "No government regulation can provide any greater incentive than carriers already have to provide the most reliable service possible," Scott Bergmann, CTIA's vice president of regulatory affairs, said in a statement. "But it is critical that the commission not myopically focus on indicia that do not provide consumers with empowering and meaningful information. Wireless consumers have a wealth of information regarding carriers' service and reliability, including from consumer groups and other third parties, as well as the carriers themselves."

For more:
- see this FCC release (PDF)
- see this IDG News Service article
- see this The Hill article

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