Back to the Dark Ages

by Colin Berkshire

It used to be that you could count on phone service in a power failure or emergency. You can’t anymore. You also can’t count on your cable, internet ISP, or cellular company.

In the days of the Bell System monopoly all Central Offices has 4~8 hours of battery and also had 2 or more days of diesel fuel and a generator. The phone company would never use natural gas, because in a disaster it couldn’t be counted upon. Hence, on-site diesel fuel. The long-haul telecommunications Skyway crossing the country would have a week-long supply of diesel fuel.

As I write this we’re having an extended power failure. After two hours our internet ISP went down. After three hours our cellular tower quit handling traffic, although we still had “dots” indicating coverage. By the fourth hour Comcast’s backup internet into our office stopped working.

All of this is unfortunate, since we have an emergency generator. We have lights, heat, computers, and our network is all up and running just fine. But we are disconnected from the outside world.

Frankly, I don’t know how we could get a reliable connection that would survive a mere four hours of power outage. The answer isn’t cell phone backup, or T1 or T3 lines, or Comcast. Those are all of the options I can think of.

What would happen in a severe snowstorm? How would we call 911 or get an ambulance?

Or, worse, what if there was a national disaster of some sort, such as the regional power grid going down.

It seems pretty clear to me that we are far less prepared for regional disasters than we were 30 years ago. In four hours without power a city becomes isolated. The infrastructure is dead.

On October 2, 2007 the FCC ordered all Central Offices and cell towers to have battery backups. Central Offices need 24 hours of backup, and cell towers need 8 hours. Only.

So this could explain why I have 4 dots of cellular coverage and no service. The requirement is that the tower have 8 hours of power. There is no requirement that the connecting facilities have power backups.

This FCC requirement was considered onerous by the telephone companies when it was instituted 8 years ago. Never mind that the Central Office requirement used to be 2~5 days of power.

And, in the consumer-hostile “spirit of service” attitude of phone companies, they seem to have taken a literal interpretation of the rules, considering it sufficient that provide 8 hours of power for a tower that is then not actually connected to any powered up facilities.

And then there is Comcast, provider of 911 phone service to millions of people. They provide 2~4 hours of backup power. Good luck with that on a dark and stormy night.