1.Aim for a resilient power supply
Above all, America's telecommunications system depends on the electric grid. It is possible to protect the grid by burying power lines and creating alternate lines of supply. The cost of this should be balanced with the benefits of improved reliability and safety.
Alternatively, we could place permanent backup generators at each cell site, effectively isolating them from the power grid. But that just changes the nature of the challenge to one of distributing fuel to the site's generators. As we saw in the aftermath of Sandy, even procuring fuel can be difficult after a disaster.
The aim should not be to fully counter each situation, but to focus instead on making the communications system more resilient. We need to take steps that would make the communications system capable of operating at a predetermined level of usefulness even in the face of some loss of capacity.
Let the FCC do its job
To its credit, the Federal Communications Commission has proposed some standards that would require telecom operators to maintain a minimum amount of backup power in the event of disasters – just as the old landline telephone network of Ma Bell days had backup power at local exchange stations and provided auxiliary power through the phone line.
The mobile phone operators have challenged the FCC's ability to do this in court, claiming that they have a self-interest to keep their networks operational, and do not need the FCC to tell them what to do. After Sandy, it should be obvious to all that they are incorrect.
All telecom operators should be required to put in place a minimum amount of backup power before storms in order to ensure a minimum level of service. If members of the public are warned and asked to buy batteries and stock up on supplies in the days before a storm, shouldn't the industry have to do the same?
Rebuild with the larger 'system' in mind
Rebuilding after disasters is an opportunity to improve infrastructure. Local authorities and residents will need to make their cost-benefit calculations with system interdependence in mind. Sure, it might cost more to bury power lines, but what if it would prevent power loss during storms and improve the dependency of communications?
Perhaps some of the necessary resources could be raised by increasing the price of cellphone site permits. This kind of increase in resiliency should be valued by operators and perhaps reflected in permit costs.
Promote compatible cellphone networks
The decision by AT&T and T-Mobile to open their mobile networks to each other in the aftermath of Sandy provided some relief for subscribers in affected areas. This allowed individual subscribers to use either network.
But Verizon and Sprint did not participate in the roaming agreement. Even if they had wanted to, it would have been impossible because their networks use technology that is incompatible with AT&T's and T-Mobile's systems.
Interoperable networks improve resiliency (in case one network goes down, another can be used), and they drive down equipment costs through economies of scale. The FCC needs to do more to promote and further interoperability, either through dual-technology devices, or in the ongoing development of new standards.
These four steps will not solve all the problems. For instance, severe flooding and extended power outages might overwhelm even the limits of the backup power supply, or the physical damage to cell sites might render too many of them inoperable. But taken together, they are capable of improving the resilience of communications systems, making disaster recovery after the next storm a little easier, and the return to normal a little faster.
Tolu Odumosu is a research fellow in the Science, Technology and Public Policy Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. Venkatesh "Venky" Narayanamurti is the Benjamin Peirce Professor of Technology and Public Policy and professor of physics at Harvard.