FCC's Rosenworcel calls for 'conversation' over reliability of cellphones in emergencies

The FCC adopted backup power requirements for cell towers in 2007 following Hurricane Katrina, but a federal appeals court ruled against the regulations in 2008, and the Office of Management and Budget blocked them later that year.

Rosenworcel said the commission should not adopt a "carbon copy" of the 2007 backup power rules.

"This requires a comprehensive discussion that includes questions about access to fuel, priority under the Stafford Act, back-up communications deployments, maintaining backhaul, and harmonization with state and local authorities," she said.

The wireless industry argues that a backup power rule would do little to improve performance during emergencies.

"In a situation such as Hurricane Sandy, where commercial power is lost for 4–8 days, rather than hours, a mandated 8-hour backup power rule would not have been a panacea," Christopher Guttman-McCabe, vice president of regulatory affairs for wireless trade association CTIA, wrote in a blog post last week.

"In spite of having backup power solutions, carriers faced issues with loss of switching facilities, access to fuel and loss of backhaul service. Yet carriers were able to keep cell sites in impacted areas operating on generators, spurring wireless consumers to comment how well cellphone networks worked, in between texts, tweets and Facebook updates about losing power."

Rosenworcel also said the FCC should consider ways to ensure the batteries in people's phones can survive extended power outages. She noted in the wake of the storm, many New Yorkers wandered the streets looking for a place to charge their phones.

"So we need also to talk about consumers preparing for the next event with longer-lasting back-up batteries, solar chargers, and more," Rosenworcel said.

She urged the commission to adopt measures to improve disaster-preparedness as soon as possible.

"We need to make progress before the next storm hits, the next disaster devastates, and the next network-related outage leaves us vulnerable again," she said.