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FCC plan for mobile contingency fails

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An FCC plan that would see every US mobile-phone base station equipped with eight hours of backup power has been rejected by the White House, on the grounds that the regulator failed to consult properly on the proposal.

The Federal Communications Commission proposed the mandatory backup power following the collapse of communications during Hurricane Katrina - when grid power was seriously disrupted and cellular networks stopped working. The Office of Management and Budget, which reviews all such legislation, has blocked the measure on the grounds that the FCC failed to get enough feedback from the industry and doesn't have the manpower to check up on compliance anyway.

The measure was fought by the CTIA, the body representing US mobile operators, on the grounds that it wasn't a very good idea and would be prohibitively expensive. While local back-up power might make sense where communication is carried over microwave relays which extend out of any disaster area, it's much more likely that connections in an urban environment will be routed over wired connections that could prove equally vulnerable to grid failure.

Cellular base stations don't have any specific power requirements - they run on the usual mains power (one of the things that makes cell towers so attractive to pirate radio stations), so in locations such as hospitals or fire stations where generated power is available the base station will continue to operate. However, such locations also generally have secured communication links to the rest of the world so the base station should remain connected.

The ruling from the OMB isn't binding - the FCC could just go ahead and make the rule anyway, but that would likely lead to court action from the operators. Alternatively, they could could modify their proposal to take into account the cost of monitoring, but it seems likely that the proposal will be left to die and post-apocalyptic callers will just have to resort to smoke signals or similar. ®

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