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It’s the Back-Up Power, Stupid: Communications, Electricity and Service Restoration Following Hurricane Sandy


Hurricane Sandy, like Hurricane Katrina before it, highlights a little-examined but perennial riddle:  what comes first in restoring life to normal after a major crisis, electricity or communications?  Without electricity, there can be no form of electronic communications but without the ability to communicate, power providers are ill-equipped to restore electricity in anything but a haphazard manner.

In the wake of Sandy’s damage, both critical infrastructure providers, telecommunications and electricity, were hard hit with outages due to downed lines and damaged, flooded hardware.  But as the days wore on, a crucial distinction emerged between the two providers:  with no electricity and back-up fuel in extremely short supply, communications providers simply had no power to operate their networks, particularly their wireless networks.  Last Friday, the FCC commented on the situation, acknowledging that “replenishing fuel supplies for generators that are enabling communications networks to continue operating is a particularly critical challenge.”

This assessment echoes the conclusions of an FCC panel asked to address how well communications networks fared in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  That panel found that among the chief causes of communications failure after Katrina were faulty batteries used by the telcos combined with lack of power given that utilities had been knocked out too.  The panel also found that communications networks owned and operated by utilities fared fairly well because they were designed to remain intact to aid restoration of service following a significant event. 

The importance of maintaining robust communications in a crisis situation is one of the top reasons why utilities tenaciously argue they need to maintain their own communications networks, such as private land mobile radio communications and fiber and microwave-based systems that allow system-wide communications, independent of and apart from the so-called “public carrier” networks.   Since the dawn of both industries, which occurred at roughly the same time period -- Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison were both pushing wires to homes and businesses simultaneously -- utilities have been fighting with telecom providers to maintain their own communications networks while telecom providers have been arguing that this duplication of infrastructure is a waste of society’s resources and ignores the highly specialized and valuable expertise that telecom companies bring to the table. 

And both industries are correct.  Utilities are rarely on the cutting-edge of technology innovation, a handicap that is becoming clear, for example, in the cybersecurity arena, where communications providers must develop razor sharp protection schemes or else lose out to smarter, more technologically savvy rivals, while utilities have no economic incentive – and indeed are often discouraged by regulators – to spend more money or time on maintaining digital security.  And yet, when it comes to crisis situations, it all comes down to back-up power.

To keep their communications networks running, most utilities use interim battery and long-term generator back-up which is usually indefinite – practically unlimited storage of diesel, gas or other fuel sources is one of the perks of being a power company.   No other industry, including telecom providers, can keep back-up power going for more than a day or two.  A study I conducted in 2010 found that one of the top reasons utilities are reluctant to rely on communications providers is "insufficient levels of power back-up."  Another top reason that utilities are reluctant to rely on phone company networks for their mission critical functions, according to the study’s findings, are "concerns over disaster preparedness" on the part of telecom providers.

While telecom companies have made great strides since Katrina in ensuring better power back-up during crisis situations, Hurricane Sandy answers, for now, the riddle of what comes first in restoring life to normal, electricity or communications.  The answer, of course, is that they both come first.

(With full disclosure, I spent three-and-a-half years studying what most people, prior to the advent of the “smart grid,” used to consider the arcane niche of “utility communications” on behalf of the utility industry.  But I also spent years many more years before that conducting analyses on behalf of a host of traditional communications providers so I’d like to think I’m coming at this fully informed by the cultures and arguments of both industries.)

Image source:  Power outage screen capture from Google Maps.

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