With tropical storms threatening the Southeastern US, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) moved to prompt court review of a backup power rule maligned by the wireless providers and cellular tower operators.
The guidelines call for a minimum 24 hours of emergency backup power for telecom assets inside central offices. They suggest eight hours for other facilities like cell tower sites, remote switches, and digital loop carrier system remote terminals. CITA, a cellular telecommunications industry trade group, said there are about 200,000 cell sites in the US, with tower companies operating about 115,000 sites, and wireless providers controlling 85,000 sites.
These new FCC guidelines for backup power bring up the recent Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL) and GTL Infrastructure (GIL) projects for installing in rural locations. Will these new cell towers have adequate backup power? Or sometime in the future will they have to go through the process of fixing an obvious problem after the fact?
Backup power systems typically involve gas, diesel or propane powered generators with fuel tanks, and batteries generally with sulfuric acid. It is expected implementing the FCC backup power requirements for cell tower installations may cause problems in sensitive community locations, such as on roofs of municipal or school buildings, and on water towers. The FCC said that companies must implement reasonable methods and procedures to ensure that batteries are regularly checked and replaced when they deteriorate. They also must ensure that the backup power generators are maintained properly and are regularly tested.
Hydrogen fuel cell powered backup electrical generation systems are being used on a limited basis by wireless carriers. Although they are environmentally friendly, their increased cost is a deterrent for mass deployment for an eight hour emergency power supply. Sprint Nextel employs the system at slightly more than 200 cell sites, representing approximately 0.25% of their sites.
Below is how complicated that process of getting proper backup power for all cell towers has become in the US.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina wiped out much of the US Gulf Coast states of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. The FCC developed their backup power guidelines following recommendations in 2006 by the Independent Panel Reviewing the Impact of Hurricane Katrina on Communications Networks.
The CITA filed suit in December 2007, along with Sprint Nextel Corp. and USA Mobility Inc., because they claimed the power backup rules would cost the industry hundreds of millions of dollars to comply. We will look further at that assertion later in this article.
Last week, the FCC sent the backup power rule, which was stayed by a US Federal Appeals court in February, to the Federal Register for publication.
The Federal Register is expected to publish the rule and 30-day notice early next week. Next, the FCC sends the backup power rule, including some controversial information collection requirements, to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The OMB will determine whether the rule complies with the Paperwork Reduction Act.
The OMB review will include input from tower companies, wireless providers, lobbyists for both, and congressional committee staffers. If OMB says no to the FCC backup power rules, the FCC as an independent agency can implement them anyway.
At an oral argument in early May, a three-judge panel appeared to give weight to the wireless industry's argument that the FCC lacked legal authority to approve the backup power rule. In July, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said it would not rule on wireless industry appeals until Bush administration OMB officials finished their review of the backup power rule and the information collection guidelines. That is why the FCC finally sent the recommendations for publication in the Federal Register. Thus this allows the OMB to make a determination that will toss the problem back into the Federal Appeals court arena.
These FCC rules give wireless providers six months to determine which assets comply with the new guidelines and to ascertain which facilities are exempted for safety reasons or conflicts with federal, state or tribal laws. Carriers with wireless facilities covered by the new rule, but not in compliance, must rectify the situation or file an action plan within 12 months on how they intend to meet new federal requirements.
The FCC has stated it does not regard the reporting requirements as burdensome, but operators and tower owners believe otherwise. Moreover, they claim the rule could cost them millions of dollars in compliance.
We interviewed a Northern California company which does cell tower and radio tower maintenance.
The owner said in the western US the majority of the installations already have adequate backup power systems installed. He said they occasionally do contract maintenance in the Southeast and Midwest of the US. In those locations many of the tower locations were built long ago and only the minimum power back up technology was used.
So the US is going to go through another hurricane season where many of the cell tower sites will lose power and be forced to depend on backup power. Isn't it time to just fix the problem? X