Journalism in the Public Interest

How Cellphone Companies Have Resisted Rules for Disasters

Hurricane Sandy drew attention to the importance of cell service during an emergency. But cell companies say voluntary efforts, not regulation, should govern emergency response.

East Village residents sit on a corner of Avenue C that gets cell phone reception and make calls on Nov. 1, 2012, during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

In a natural disaster or other emergency, one of the first things you're likely to reach for is your cellphone. Landlines are disappearing. More than 30 percent of American households now rely exclusively on cellphones.

Despite that, cell carriers have successfully pushed back against rules on what they have to do in a disaster. The carriers instead insist that emergency standards should be voluntary, an approach the Federal Communications Commission has gone along with.

After Hurricane Katrina, for instance, carriers successfully opposed a federal rule that would have required them to have 24-hours of backup power on cell towers. In another instance, an FCC program to track crucial information during an emergency — such as which areas are down and the status of efforts to bring the network back — remains entirely voluntary. Nor is the information collected made public.

After Sandy, when thousands roamed the streets looking for service, many had no idea where they could get a signal. AT&T and Sprint, among the major carriers, didn't initially release details on what portion of their network was down.

The emergency issue has been part of a trend in deregulation of the telecommunications industry. Since 2010, more than 20 states have passed laws limiting their regulation of telecoms.

"The FCC is very concerned about the nature of their overall authority and whether rules would survive a court challenge," says Harold Feld, senior vice president of Public Knowledge, a technology advocacy nonprofit. "So their approach is to push and nudge and come up with things that would be more acceptable to the industry."

"Traditional carriers had reliability requirements, and reporting requirements," says Susan Crawford, a visiting professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and a former technology adviser to President Obama. "We treat wireless and broadband much differently."

An FCC spokesperson declined to comment on emergency planning issues beyond pointing to field hearings announced last week, to study the response by networks to Hurricane Sandy and other recent disasters.

Katrina also generated concern over emergency communications plans, but did not lead to binding rules. Instead, the FCC advised that the industry work with them to create emergency preparations checklists — voluntary best practices, rather than requirements.

The FCC's voluntary Disaster Information Reporting System was also created in the wake of Katrina. The agency does not say which carriers are participating in the system, and says it can't release the data that is reported because it is considered "sensitive, for national security and/or commercial reasons." The FCC also hasn't determined to what extent it can share information with state and local governments.

Carriers "actively report" to the database, and also work with the Department of Homeland Security during emergencies, according to Chris Guttman-McCabe, vice-president of regulatory affairs at CTIA-The Wireless Association, an industry group. "It's clearly a balance," he says, between "working with the government on getting information to them" and "trying to stand up the networks."

Others argue that a voluntary system isn't enough to inform the public or hold companies accountable. "When it's voluntary, what are the expectations about the accuracy of information?" Feld says. "It's a whole other thing to have to give a serious, mandatory assessment to a federal agency."

Another instance where a voluntary initiative met pushback from carriers is a new system of Wireless Emergency Alerts, beamed out from cell towers in a disaster area to anyone with a capable phone within reach. Most carriers are participating, gradually phasing in new phones with the ability to receive WEAs.

But the carriers resisted recommendations that they should be able to target the alerts more precisely, and not just to county-level.

First responders in Western states in particular, where counties can be enormous, would like the ability to issue more local warnings, according to Art Botterell and Lorin Bristow, both emergency planning experts. Botterell also noted that cities could benefit from the ability to blast messages to a radius of just a few blocks, citing New York City's 2007 steam pipe explosion. "Worrying about lighting up the whole county creates a disincentive to use it at all," says Botterell.

The industry had argued that not all carriers had the technological capability to offer that kind of precise targeting. The Telecommunications Industry Association wrote that "geotargeting rules that are more stringent" than county-level could "stifle innovation, delay the roll-out [of the program] and reduce voluntary participation." (Some carriers are now working with local officials to offer more flexible targeting, according to Bristow.)

Carriers have long argued along these lines — that disasters each present unique scenarios and that companies need to stay flexible as technologies change. The carriers say it is in their best interest to keep networks running, and point to the quick deployment of portable towers after Sandy and examples like AT&T and T-Mobile allowing customers to roam between networks.

Feld, of Public Knowledge, says that the "technological flexibility argument is true, but it's not a show-stopper. We have to balance flexibility against the need to have real emergency planning."

“We treat wireless and broadband much differently.”

Yes, wireless and broadband are treated much differently than traditional phone service.  For one, both have always been subject to competition whereas for the better part of a century land line service was primarily a regulated monopoly.  Under the regulated monopoly model government to dictate various aspects of the telecom business in exchange for allowing the utilities to recoup costs through government approved rates. Wireless, on the other hand, has always competed on price.  It has always been a dynamic in wireless that people want to compare it to the service and reliability that they experienced in land line phone service, yet no customer wants to pay for the cost of doing so.  For example, everyone wants full coverage where they live, work, and play, but almost no one wants to see the infrastructure necessary to provide that level of service, at least not where the live and play.  Similarly, everyone wants working wireless service in the aftermath of a storm, but no one wants to pay for the cost of the infrastructure (24 hour back-up, hardened infrastructure, self-healing network design) necessary to support the cost of achieving this level of service.

Pro Publica is normally reliable in presenting more a more complete picture related to a given complex situation.  In this case, it seems to me they failed to investigate the other side of the story.

One “secret” not disclosed is that ALL carriers allow for first responders to “sign up” prior to any catastrophic event.  That privilege allows first responders priority cell tower access over the common user.

abinico warez

Dec. 3, 2012, 3:55 p.m.

what ever happened to the concept of public utility/

Cell phone companiees want to be involved in every aspect of our lives, both public and private. They want to have access to record every word we say and sell the information gathered to the highest bidder. Yet, they don’t want to be regulated one iota. Why does this not surprise me?

Morris Foutch

Dec. 3, 2012, 8:09 p.m.

I live in a serious seismic area and we expect a biggie (>8) shaker one day as the professors in our state and adjoining state university geology departments tell us frequently. Make no mistake, the signs are evident that we are overdue for a whale of a quake. Now, with about 30% of us using cell phones exclusively, how are we to communicate should a number of towers crash? I suggest we (and me) pay a small fee to guarantee uptime for these networks. Having worked in telecom for many years, I know backup is not cheap but hey, what is a life worth. My landline costs me about $25 monthly before all the crap fees. I plan to drop it in 10 months and would gladly pay a few bucks extra on my cell bill to make it quake resistant. Dont let the carriers bully you.

RE: T Ganski

“but almost no one wants to see the infrastructure necessary to provide that level of service, at least not where the live and play.”

It’s been at least 5 years, and probably closer to 10, since I’ve read about people whining about cell towers where I live.  Maybe your area is different, but your assumptions about how many people still oppose cell towers is leading you down a strange path.

“Similarly, everyone wants working wireless service in the aftermath of a storm, but no one wants to pay for the cost of the infrastructure (24 hour back-up, hardened infrastructure, self-healing network design) necessary to support the cost of achieving this level of service.”

Record profits from cell phone companies included?  So, tell us which provider you work for, so it’s easier for us to detect why you’re so obviously biased in favor of letting cell phone companies treat customers like property instead of people.

Peter’s on target.

What’s actually worse, though, is that the cellphone companies are arguably obsolete, and try to manipulate the market to remain relevant.

Consider that there are enough phones in the United States that a peer-to-peer (“mesh”) network could blow away any carrier’s coverage at no charge.  How often are you closer to a cell tower than someone else with a cellphone?

The Serval Project is a primitive version, but it’ll only get better.

(The problem is that large organizations flock together, so they’ll remain on traditional networks far past their prime, locking many of us into the traditional telecommunications companies that prove time and time again that they want money and authority for no service.  Remember that AT&T was against answering machines and modems, because it was THEIR network.)

Retention Periods of Major Cellular Service Providers-Law Enforcement Use Only
Data gathered by the Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section, U.S. Department of Justice
Verizon T‐Mobile AT&T/Cingular Sprint Nextel Virgin Mobile1
Post‐paid: 3‐5
5 years Depends on length of
Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited
Call detail
1 rolling year Pre‐paid: 2 years
Post‐paid: 5 years
Pre‐paid: varies
Post‐paid: 5‐7 years
18‐24 months 18‐24 months 2 years
Cell towers
used by phone
1 rolling year Officially 4‐6
months, really a
year or more.
From July 2008 18‐24 months 18‐24 months Not retained ‐
obtain through
Text message
1 rolling year Pre‐paid: 2 years
Post‐paid: 5 years
Post paid: 5‐7 years 18 months
(depends on
18 months
(depends on
60‐90 days
Text message
3‐5 days Not retained Not retained Not retained Not retained 90 days (search
warrant required
with “text of text”
Pictures Only if uploaded
to website
(customer can
add or delete
pictures any time)
Can be stored
online and are
retained until
deleted or service
is canceled
Not retained Contact
Not retained
IP session
1 rolling year Not retained Only retained on nonpublic
IPs for 72 hours.
If public IP, not
60 days 60 days Not retained
IP destination
90 days Not retained Only retained on
non‐public IPs for 72
hours. If public IP, not
60 days 60 days Not retained
Bill copies
(post‐paid only)
3‐5 years, but
only last 12
months readily
Not retained 5‐7 years 7 years 7 years n/aI
Payment history
(post‐paid only)
3‐5 years, check
copies for 6
5 years Depends on length of
Unlimited Unlimited n/aI
Typically 30 days 2 weeks Depends. Most stores
carry for 1‐2 months
Depends Depends n/a
Post‐paid: 3‐5
Not retained Not retained Depends Depends Not retained
* May vary by former company
** For records older than mid‐Nov. 2007, Sprint can only provide bill reprints with outgoing info
I No bill copies, but list of credit card transactions does not expire
1 Virgin Mobile is now owned by Sprint. Since companies have separate compliance offices, for now they are listed

When will we learn as a nation that regulation of companies that do busisness in the U. s. is not only good but needed?  as far as I’m concerned if these companies don’t want to contribute to the public good and give just a little back to the communities that they are in then tose communities have the right to refuse them the ability to do busisness in those communities and the communities then have not only the right but the moral imperitive to open the community up to a provider who is willing to give back to the community.  If communities would regulate busisness’s in this manner then perhaps that will provide the right check and balance to the unchecked greed that seems to operate in this country!

So much for deregulation of telecommunications.  We now are living with a real kluge of a system.

Also the equipment providers would need to offer an emergency response product line for the carriers to implement.  But guess what, we no longer make the heaving duty communications infrastructure products.  We must buy this stuff from either a German company or the Chinese.

Bottom line - buy a disposable pre-paid if you don’t want to be tracked. Don’t register the phone - just use it an pay the bill in cash. Page Plus unlimited for $39.95 is the best thing out there. Full Verizon network with no strings or tracking. Learn about freedom by googling “barkforum”

Though I too have no real love for the carriers, many of the assertions made here are simply not based in fact. In their current configuration cell phones are duplex devices and as such require infrastructure to operate thus mesh networking is not possible without completely different hardware. The infrastructure equipment for 4G LTE technology is not even being made in the US which now has Congress worried that before long China will control US telecommunications. If and when mesh networking does become a mainstream offering it will face many of the same issues that face the carriers, most notably insufficient backhaul capacity and network congestion. As to the assertion that the there is no longer resistance to the construction of wireless infrastructure I can assure you that nothing could be further from the truth. I find it interesting that nobody mentioned the fact that end-users expect to get handsets for free and service as cheap as possible which flies in the face of justifying the expense in building out more reliable networks. It also ignores the astronomical cost of the spectrum required to provide such service which has grown almost exponentially since Congress gave the FCC authority to auction spectrum. A big part of the reason wireless is treated differently than the incumbent wireline local exchange carriers (LEC’s) were treated stems from the Congressional mandate to reduce consumer cost through carrier competition which began around the same time that wireless was coming into the picture… remember, there used to be only one telephone service provider in an area… now there are so many competitive exchange carriers (CLEC’s) that even those in the industry cannot keep track of them all. It is also important to remember that these carriers are public companies whose shareholders demand that they are profitable and they are regulated by politicians who wish to be re-elected by constituencies that want it all… the free handset, the low cost service, ubiquitous coverage provided by a robust, redundant mission critical network. Like it or not these desires contradict each other thus there would need to be a consensus as to priorities from all those involved; Congress, the FCC, the shareholders and the end-users before any significant change is likely to occur. Though I certainly have no crystal ball, I do not see this happening while each of the stakeholders is operating under their own, competing agenda.

@ Robert Fray: Thanks so much for your clarifying post. You are absolutely correct, and you’ve outlined the downside of unfettered capitalism in our inability to agree to intelligent standards which would streamline, eliminate redundancy, increase accessibility, and reduce costs. The downside of centrally “managed” capitalism, of course, is another can of worms we all understand, since it relies on the intentions of the “managers”.

Our mishmash of competition is keeping us running behind the curve globally, where so many other countries have long provided cell/internet access with much better, faster, broader service at much less cost.

After friends of mine in New York lost cell service and power after Hurricane Sandy, I purchased an emergency double A battery backup USB cell charger. It doesn’t fully charge phones, but restores enough (20%) juice to operate phones. (Cell service in NewYork/New Jersey was eventually restored, but by then too many were without power and unable to re-charge their dead phones. I also bought a couple of backup cell batteries which I keep at about a 50% charge.

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