Regulators hang up on cell tower backup rules

By: AP
By: AP

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) -- Federal regulators have rejected proposed changes by the Federal Communications Commission that would require all U.S. cell phone towers to have at least eight hours of backup power.

The White House Office of Management and Budget said late Friday that the FCC failed to get public comment before passing the regulations last year and didn't show that the information required from wireless companies would actually be useful.

It also said the FCC hadn't demonstrated that it had enough staff to analyze the hundreds of thousands of pages of documents that the wireless industry said its members would likely have to produce as part of the regulations.

A federal appeals court put the rules on hold this summer pending a review by the OMB, which is tasked with overseeing federal regulations.

FCC officials said they were considering their options, which could include changing the proposed regulations or voting to override the OMB's decision. The court would still have to rule before any regulations went into effect.

"We believe that having backup power for America's communications networks during times of emergency is vitally important for public safety," said FCC spokesman Robert Kenny. "Ensuring that reliable and redundant communications are available to public safety during, and in the aftermath, of natural disasters and other catastrophic events continues to be a high priority for the Commission."

Industry officials welcomed the decision, which came following legal challenges by trade group CTIA-The Wireless Association, Sprint Nextel Corp. and others.

Crystal Davis, a spokeswoman for Overland Park, Kan.-based Sprint, said the company was "pleased" that the OMB found that the reporting requirements would have been an "undue burden" for cell phone carriers.

The FCC proposed in May 2007 that all cell towers have a minimum of eight hours of backup power, which would switch on in the event a tower lost its regular energy source.

The requirement came after an FCC task force pointed out that many cell towers along the Gulf Coast lost power following Hurricane Katrina, contributing to communication breakdowns that complicated rescue and recovery efforts.

Wireless companies objected to the regulations, claiming they were illegally drafted and would present a huge economic and bureaucratic burden. They said that adding generators or battery packs to thousands of cell sites would be expensive and, because of local zoning rules or structural limitations, impossible in some places.

They also said a blanket requirement of eight hours for all towers tied the industry's hands in planning for natural disasters, such as investing in stronger towers along the coasts or maintaining mobile transmitters that could be rolled into an area to replace or boost the local signal.

"While we have the same goal as the FCC - to keep our networks running during times of emergency - we believe that having the flexibility to adapt to unique emergency situations will better serve American wireless consumers," CTIA spokesman Joe Farren said.

The FCC agreed in October 2007 that it would exempt cell sites from the rules, but only if the wireless carrier provided paperwork proving the exemption was necessary.

The FCC would give companies six months from when the rules went into effect to submit those reports and another six months to either bring the sites into compliance or explain how they would provide backup service to those areas through other means.

CTIA, Sprint and others asked the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., to intervene earlier this year, saying the exemptions would still leave wireless companies scrambling to inspect and compile reports on thousands of towers.

The appeals court in July put the rules on hold while the FCC submitted the rules to OMB, which must sign off on federal regulations that involve mandating members of the public to collect and submit information.

Depending on whether the FCC chooses to forge ahead with the rules or submit something different, the court still must decide on whether the rules go forward.

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