To keep wireless and Internet services working in the event of another disaster, cell towers should have generators and longer-lasting batteries, panelists told federal regulators at a public hearing Tuesday.
Jack Schnirman, Long Beach city manager, told the Federal Communications Commission that superstorm Sandy knocked out landlines and all cell towers in his city, and officials couldn't communicate with police officers, firefighters, public works employees and residents.
One way to prevent that from happening again, Schnirman said, is to require cell towers to have backup power.
"The biggest issue with all these facilities is that they must be equipped with natural gas-powered generators with automatic transfer switches, so they can be immediately powered by the generator when the power goes out," he said.
The FCC met with Schnirman, representatives of phone carriers, public utilities and city governments Tuesday in lower Manhattan to discuss what happened to broadband and cell services during Sandy and what can be done to maintain services.
Tuesday's gathering in lower Manhattan, the first of several, came three months after Sandy struck the Northeast and knocked out some cell service to the area for days, and in some cases, weeks. The FCC had estimated that 25 percent of the cell towers between Virginia and Massachusetts weren't working in the days after Sandy.
In November, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who noted that one-third of phone users rely exclusively on wireless technology, urged the FCC to sit down with first responders and mobile-phone carriers to work out a plan to improve cellphone service in an emergency.
Panelists also noted that backup batteries used by mobile carriers last only about eight hours. "In this state and age of better technology, we should be able to provide a longer battery life to our cell towers and their cell infrastructure," said Rahul N. Merchant, chief information and innovation officer for New York City.
Suggestions offered by panelists included installing equipment above flood levels and inviting mobile carriers to participate in the Office of Emergency Management.
Schnirman said city officials were unable to contact phone carriers. "The lack of communication and response from service providers was extremely disconcerting," he said. "All cell towers were down and no service providers were around."
Schnirman said city officials contacted a customer support representative at a phone carrier, hoping the carrier would supply emergency cell service, commonly referred to as cell on wheels.
"The customer service representative replied, 'You might want to look that up on the Internet. I don't know what that is,' " Schnirman recalled. "Obviously, ironically, we had no Internet at that time."