IoT & Embedded Technology Blog

Hurricane Sandy: A Wake-Up Call and (Perhaps) an Embedded Opportunity

As the Northeastern quarter of the United States undertakes the Herculean task of recovering from hurricane Sandy, perhaps the most devastating storm ever to hit the country, we expect to see renewed calls to make our cell phone networks more reliable in times of disasters, natural or otherwise.

Hurricane Katrina, in 2005, provided the first real-life demonstration the vulnerability of the cellular system, and the havoc that a failure can wreak. Over 1400 cell towers in the afflicted area were knocked out, leaving more than three million people without cell phone service. That was bad enough back then, before cell phones became so ubiquitous and most households still relied on land lines as their primary mode of communication. Cell phone dependency has increased rapidly in succeeding years. Since 2004, the rate of outright migration of land line or dual service households to cellular-only has increased by more than eight times.  By April of 2011, more than 25% of US households had entirely eschewed land line use; the rate of conversion had doubled in the three years since 2008.

While damage to the cell towers themselves was a large contributor to the outages during and post-Katrina, much of the problem was caused by power failures and a lack of backup power for the towers. A hue and cry arose from the populace, demanding that the Government call for mandatory backup power for these installations. The FCC proposed that each cell tower be required to have backup power sufficient for 8 hours of operation. However, as you can imagine, the cellular industry was adamantly opposed to such a regulation. Spearheaded by CTIA (f.k.a. the Cellular Telecommunications Internet Association) and major providers such as Sprint-Nextel, a suit was filed against the FCC, claiming that the Commission lacked the authority to institute such a regulation. In 2008 the Office of Budget and Management of the Bush Administration backed down, leaving the addressing of the need for backup power to the “free market.”

To be sure, putting backup power supplies in place for the host of cell towers in use (now estimated to be in excess of 220,000), would be extremely expensive, and both legal and environmental issues would have to be addressed in addition to the cost of equipment. Both backup generators and large battery packs require cell tower installations to have a larger footprint, and generators would have to be fueled as well. Leases would have to be renegotiated, zoning issues would arise, and there would be the potential for fuel spills in the case of high winds, floods or earthquakes. Thus the industry has largely been dragging its feet. The populace in general has a short memory; for the most part the industry has ignored the problem, hoping it would go away. And, as things returned to normal, the issue has largely been forgotten.

2011 saw another major storm in hurricane Irene. This time over 6500 towers were knocked out. However, much of the cellular blackout was in less densely populated areas, so there were fewer complaints. In addition, service was restored more quickly than it had been after Katrina. Verizon claims to have had 8-hour backup for all of its cell towers; this may also have mitigated the problem.

Then, on October 28-30, we were hit by hurricane Sandy. This was one of the largest storms ever recorded, and it is estimated that 25% of the cell towers in a ten-state area were knocked out. This included the northeastern coastal states, among the most densely populated areas in the nation. We would not at all be surprised to see a renewed call for regulations mandating backup power for all cell towers.

As mentioned above, Verizon claims to have 8-hour backup for its towers. However, at least until now, they have not used this as a marketing tool. Thus other major providers have been able to ignore the issue.

The fate of any proposed regulation is tied to the forthcoming election. Should the Democratic Party come out on top, we may have such a regulation. However, a Republican administration would probably stonewall any such effort.

In the absence of regulation, the situation is likely to become quite interesting. While outright collusion between industry providers to avoid implementing improvements may be illegal, de facto collusion will almost surely arise. Providers will be watching one another like hawks while also trying to keep their fingers on the pulse of the wireless market. As long as no provider breaks ranks through wholesale implementation of backup power and aggressive marketing of this capability to the populace, the issue may once again fade. But, should one provider aggressively market a backup capability (Verizon would be the logical leader since they have the hardware in place), the remaining providers may be forced to acknowledge the problem and rush to compete.

We believe that 8-hour backup capability, while far better than nothing, may still be insufficient in many cases. Just the logistics of refueling backup generators in afflicted areas would be a mammoth undertaking. But, in this blogger’s opinion, this is really a matter of national security. Given the fact that much of the populace has become totally reliant on cellular communication, lack of backup in the event of major natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods or earthquakes could seriously hamper rescue efforts and devastate the economies of large sections of the country. And, even worse, consider the effects of a potential nuclear or biological strike!

Either way, should a regulation be promulgated, or should the marketplace demand a more robust backup capability, there will be an exploding demand for generators, advanced battery technology, energy management systems and the like. This could present an opportunity for embedded providers of energy management systems and software. Thus, at the end of the day, even the storm clouds of hurricane Sandy may have a silver lining (at least for some).