Quakes called signal of danger to cell networks

Rugged cell sites in Haiti fared better than those in New Zealand, a carrier executive says

Mobile networks were damaged more by the Feb. 25 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, than by the 2010 quake that devastated Haiti, according to the chairman of a company that owns carriers in both countries.

The infrastructure in New Zealand was hit more heavily because it relied on shared towers and commercial power, Trilogy International Partners Chairman John Stanton said during a keynote panel discussion at the CTIA Wireless trade show in Orlando on Thursday. By contrast, the limited electrical grid and the vulnerability of cell towers forced operators there to set up strong backup and security systems at each site, he said.

The way mobile infrastructure is deployed in the U.S. and many other developed countries, with cell sites designed to be unobtrusive and shared among carriers, could make it vulnerable to widespread disasters like the recent earthquake in Japan, Stanton said.

In the Jan. 12, 2010, quake in Haiti, Trilogy-owned carrier ComCEL lost only 26 cell sites out of more than 300, Stanton said. (Trilogy's estimate of cell sites out of service a few weeks after the quake was higher.) A key reason for the network's resilience was that each cell site had its own battery and generator and a long-lasting supply of fuel.

"There's essentially no commercial power in Haiti," Stanton said. Each cell site also has security guards because the fuel is so valuable it invites theft, he added.

In Christchurch, the government required mobile operators to collocate their antennas on shared towers for environmental reasons. Where those towers went down, service from all the carriers was lost, and at other locations, service went out quickly if the electrical grid had failed, Stanton said. As a result, service from all three carriers went out for about five days following the quake, he said.

In the U.S., carriers rely on portable generators distributed around the country and count on being able to deploy those to the scene of a disaster where cell sites have failed, Stanton said.

"The wireless systems are not, in general, serviced by more than a couple of hours of battery backup and not serviced by generators," Stanton said. "The premise in the U.S. is essentially that a disaster will be isolated."

In addition to heading Trilogy partners, Stanton is chairman and acting CEO of U.S. WiMax operator Clearwire. He did not discuss that company during Thursday's keynote discussion, which also included Twitter co-founder Biz Stone and Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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