How Cellphone Companies Have Resisted Rules for Disasters

Flickr: UltraSlo1

Editor's Note: During Hurricane Sandy, cell phone networks were down for days. Hawaii has seen it's own version of this story. During the 2010 Japan tsunami warning, AT&T networks were clogged and customers unable to make calls or connect to the network. Maui county officials had to resort to their old walkie-talkie system until the network cleared up the next morning.

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.

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