Will Cell Towers Work During Power Outages?

By Nick G. Foster

October 10, 2019

This week two public utility companies in California, PG&E and SDGE, both announced voluntarily power shutoffs in certain areas. The shutoffs are a precautionary measure by the public utility companies in response to seasonal Santa Ana winds.

Last year the Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history, was largely blamed on failed PG&E power lines as a result of the high winds.

When PG&E and SDGE shutoff of power, will the cell towers work?

Some cell towers will be operational for a brief period of time and other cell towers will go completely offline. The site specific answer will depend on if the cell tower, or cell site, has a back-up generator, or if the wireless carrier has swiftly deployed a back-up generator.

Even with a back-up generator, the site will only be operational so long as the back-up generator has fuel. Back-up generators are typically fueled by either diesel or natural gas. As soon as the fuel to the generator runs out, the cell tower will go down.

Why did the FCC start requiring cell towers to have back-up generators?

After the devastating category 5 Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Florida and Louisiana in 2005, the FCC launched an investigation into the failure of cell towers and cell sites in the region. They determined that wireless companies did not maintain an adequate back-up power supply to keep their sites operational.

Telphone outages frustrate people’s efforts to locate family, friends, and it complicates rescue and relief operations. When a natural disaster takes place, cell towers need to be operational.

Do all cell towers have back-up generators?

No. Although the FCC required starting in 2007 that all cell sites for every wireless carrier must have a back-up generator, to the best of our knowledge, none of the carriers are complying with the FCC’s requirement.

We have represented many clients in discussions with wireless carriers to install back-up generators on our client’s properties. When the wireless carrier believes the price to lease the land for a back-up generator is too high, the wireless carrier will abandon the request – defying the FCC’s mandate. The wireless carrier would rather not pay a little bit more in rent, than to comply with a FCC order meant to help communities connect with each other during a natural disaster.

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Nick Foster Airwave Advisors

About Nick G. Foster

Since founding Airwave Advisors® in 2014, Mr. Foster has added value to over 400 clients ranging from the State of Nevada, City of Beverly Hills, to Habitat For Humanity. Mr. Foster focuses on cell tower lease renewals, buyouts, new lease negotiation, and cell site lease management. Prior to starting Airwave Advisors® Mr. Foster founded and led the Cell Site Services Group within nationwide commercial real estate services leader Cassidy Turley (now known as Cushman & Wakefield).