Communication Breakdown: Improving Cell Phone Infrastructure Post-Sandy

Written by Adam Janos on . Posted in Environment, Technology.

People in New York’s Tribeca neighborhood, without power because of Superstorm Sandy, waited for a chance to charge their mobile phones on an available
generator setup on a sidewalk. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

In the early morning hours of Oct. 30, 2012, the basement at 104 Broad Street was filling up with water. As the building, a major switching center for Verizon in Lower Manhattan, lost its power, copper cables integral to its operations were submerged in salt water.

The center is just one link in a vast chain of telecommunication technology, but it was critical enough to create serious problems. The flooding is one of numerous reasons Mayor Michael Bloomberg has called for the city—and by extension its telecommunications carriers—to learn from the lessons of Superstorm Sandy and to adjust accordingly.

Last month the mayor released his “Stronger, More Resilient New York” report, in which the city looked at the effects of climate change and how infrastructure would have to change to deal with potential future disasters.

According to Tokumbo Shobowale, the mayor’s chief business operations officer, the 14-foot storm surge that came with Sandy showed how woefully underprepared for climate change the city is. Fifty-one miles of telecommunications wiring were flooded, with saltwater corrosion creating some of the biggest problems. One day after the storm, some 1.9 million New Yorkers registered disrupted service.

Things will only get worse from here, the mayor’s report predicts. Though meteorologists have described Sandy as a “one hundred year storm” and a perfect mix of catastrophic conditions, the Bloomberg administration predicts rising sea levels so dramatic that by the 2050s a Sandy-level storm surge will be five to six feet higher.

Those numbers correspond with a dramatic expansion of New York City’s flood plain. As a result, the population in the affected zones will grow from 398,000 to 801,000. The mayor’s plan for storm surge preparedness includes several architectural changes to the waterways, such as jetties and buffer-zone wetlands, and better management of telecommunications is front and center for when the water does come to shore.

Wireless telecommunication outages during disasters can be broken down into two categories. The system can become overburdened with calls, texts and data transmission owing to an emergency that doesn’t affect infrastructure. Alternatively, component parts of the wireless infrastructure can be made inoperable by severe weather that knocks out the system.

NYU Polytechnic Professor Shivendra Panwar suggested that in both circumstances opening up cell towers would make private carriers more resilient by providing redundancy. That way, should Verizon’s tower go down in a storm because of flooding at 104 Broad Street, a nearby T-Mobile tower could pick up the slack and keep Verizon’s customers connected while repairs are made.

“They’re all moving towards 4GLE technologically, and so it’ll make it easier for them to share towers, radio, infrastructure, backhaul … all the pieces,” Panwar told City & State at a recent New York State Wireless Association conference. “AT&T and T-Mobile shared some of their infrastructure after Sandy. But remember AT&T/TMobile have some sort of business alliance—there was a big movement for the two of them to merge—so they do work closer than other carriers. Now the question is whether Verizon and AT&T will work together.”

Christopher Nurse, AT&T’s regional vice president of regulatory and external affairs, said the decision to work hand-in-hand with T-Mobile and not Sprint or Verizon was dictated more by technology than the marketplace. “It’s just not [technologically there] yet, and it’s going to be a long time before you get there,” Nurse said in a phone interview. “We put the radio bands that we’re licensed to use in our phones. We don’t put the radio bands in that we’re not licensed to use, and so you’re not going to have a universal phone for decades.”

In February, New York City’s chief information officer testified before the Federal Communications Commission on better practices for private carriers in the wake of the storm. A top concern was a lack of backup power for cell towers during emergencies.

“In an age of increasingly severe weather events and related outages it is no longer enough to rely wholly on industry best practices as regards to battery backup,” said Rahul Merchant, the city’s chief information officer. “To this day it remains unclear exactly how many hours of backup power commercial mobile wireless carriers provided their customers during the storm. Commercial communications providers must assure the public of resilient, robust networks capable of continuous service in emergencies.”

Cell sites are equipped with a backup battery, so that in the event of power failure the site can stay on for four to eight hours. But in the event of a serious storm like Sandy, the power grid stayed down in some places for weeks.

Nurse said that improving reliability through the widespread use of generators is difficult because of the vertical nature of New York City. In most of the country cell sites are freestanding towers, but in the metropolitan area they’re rigged to the rooftops of buildings. “Where do you put [the generators]? The basement floods. If it’s the roof, how does the fuel get up to the roof? It’s very challenging to physically place these … and because power is so reliable, there isn’t a lot of a call for it,” he said.

Although local government cannot regulate how mobile carriers prepare for emergencies, Bloomberg’s plan seeks to create a Planning and Resiliency Office within the Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications. The office would use the franchise renewal process to help leverage better practices from the carriers. Mobile telecommunications franchise renewals will be written in 2019.

Todd Schlekeway, the executive director of the National Association of Tower Erectors, has worked on fixing problems associated with wind and flooding. Like Nurse, he echoed the sentiment that the grid’s reliability was integral to telecommunications.

“It’s hard to say you’ll have 100 percent of the network on when the electrical grid goes down,” he said.

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