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Roberta J. Witty
Research VP
11 years at Gartner
33 years IT industry

Roberta Witty is a research VP in Gartner Research, where she is part of the Compliance, Risk and Leadership group. Her primary area of focus is business continuity management and disaster recovery. Ms. Witty is the role specialty lead for… Read Full Bio

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A Post from My Colleague Bill Menezes: What Cellphone Carriers Say About Hurricane Recovery #Sandy #HurricaneSandy

by Roberta J. Witty  |  November 7, 2012  |  2 Comments

 

Sandy’s impact on mobile wireless service was, if anything, a reminder that the best backup systems will never replace the need for redundant communications channels when it comes to standalone or lifeline services.

The FCC indicated that at one point last week up to 25% of the cell sites in affected areas of the region from Virginia to Massachusetts were not working. In hardest hit areas of New York and New Jersey that figure probably was a lot higher, although AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile USA have not detailed just how badly their network suffered in those areas.

Customers in areas that did have service often experienced differences in the apparent resiliency of different carrier networks. One Gartner colleague in Middlesex County, New Jersey reported significant disruption to his AT&T voice and mobile data service at home while his wife had no problems with her Verizon service.

That kind of disparity and the widespread loss of service in some areas highlighted the inherent weakness of the cellular network: Even with cell sites girded by backup batteries and diesel generators, the macro cellular system is not a very resilient network. Each Sandy-related site outage could have resulted from any or all of these factors:

  1. The site did not have an on-site backup generator to recharge batteries or supply power to the base station. Verizon claims all of its tower sites have at least eight hours of backup power, but any experiencing a power outage at the storm’s outset – say, from a tree falling on the local power line – easily would have exceeded the eight-hour threshold before the storm passed. By Nov. 6, Verizon was reporting that 99% of its towers in the affected storm area were operating while AT&T put its figure at 98%.”
  2. Major physical damage occurred, such as a tower toppling in high winds.
  3. Ancillary damage occurred due to flooding or falling debris, which may have knocked out of commission backup power supplies or the local optical backhaul network element. Any towers backhauling traffic through flooded Verizon central offices in lower Manhattan and other areas  essentially were cut off, even if the tower itself maintained power.
  4. Regional factors such as roads blocked by fallen trees or flooding that made it impossible for fuel trucks to resupply backup generators or move portable cell sites – COWs or COLTs – into place once service went out.

The FCC has attempted to address the robustness of the backup power issue before, with a 2007 rule requiring a minimum of eight hours backup power for cell sites. A federal court effectively blocked the rule in 2008 amid objections by the Bush administration and mobile carriers, who objected to the purported cost of the mandate.

Carriers also raised the salient point that for some disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, it is virtually impossible to prevent some towers from going out of service. As Sprint Nextel noted in seeking a stay of the FCC rule: “Backup power supplies—whether they provide electricity for eight hours or eighty hours—are useless when sites and lines are submerged in flood waters.”

That will continue to be the reason why users, especially enterprises using mobile wireless for business-critical functions, need backup communications platforms, not just backup power.  Where available, POTS lines that do not rely on a user power source still are a reliable backup, assuming the local central office – typically built like a fortress – - has not flooded or burned down.

Satellite systems also may provide backup for the most critical communications. For example, AT&T offers a specialized handset that can connect U.S. customers via the 3G cellular or satellite networks. AT&T also recently introduced its Remote Mobility Zone product, a portable kit that essentially provides an on-the-spot 2G cell site that will backhaul voice and data to the AT&T network via satellite.

In addition, ask your mobile service provider to substantiate their network resiliency measures in locations important to your business. If the carrier’s cell tower serving an important manufacturing facility does not have backup power, for example,  factor that into your buying decision.

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