THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION’S DELAY in ruling on backup power reporting requirements mandated by the Federal Communications Commission could suggest it sees merit in mobile phone industry arguments that compliance obligations imposed on carriers and accompanying costs are far greater than what telecom regulators projected.
The Office of Management and Budget was to have wrapped up its review in early November on whether information collection guidelines in the FCC’s backup power decision squares with the Paperwork Reduction Act. The OMB routinely examines rulings from the FCC and other federal agencies to determine whether they adhere to Paperwork Reduction Act objectives, typically approving them after a 60-day review. That hasn’t happened in this case.
An OMB spokesman declined to comment on the delay. It was noted that the OMB reviews sometimes take longer than normal in cases where budget officials need to gather and analyze additional data.
The completion of the OMB review – which is not binding on the FCC – would enable a federal appeals court to rule on the central legal question of whether the FCC overstepped its authority in approving the backup power rule. The FCC decision was appealed by cellular industry association CTIA, Sprint Nextel Corp. and paging company USA Mobility Inc.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit put the FCC’s backup-power decision on hold in February. In July, following oral arguments in May that did not appear to go well for the commission, the court said it would wait until the OMB acts before issuing a ruling.
In 2007, responding to communications failures caused by Hurricane Katrina and other major storms, the FCC adopted guidelines calling for a minimum 24 hours of emergency backup power for telecom assets inside central offices and eight hours for other facilities such as cell sites, remote switches and digital loop carrier system remote terminals. There are about 200,000 cell sites in the United States, with tower companies operating about 115,000 sites and operators controlling 85,000 sites.
The FCC backup-power rule gives wireless providers six months to determine which assets comply with the new guidelines and to ascertain which facilities are exempted for safety reasons. Carriers with wireless facilities covered by the new rule, but not in compliance, must rectify the situation or file an action plan within 12 months on how they intend to meet new federal requirements.
The agency’s action followed the issuance of recommendations in 2006 by the Independent Panel Reviewing the Impact of Hurricane Katrina on Communications Networks. The wireless industry claims the backup power rule veers from the panel’s report. The FCC initially responded to protests by partially modifying the rule and extending auditing and compliance deadlines.
The FCC estimated each wireless carrier would have to shell out approximately $312,600 to comply with backup-power information collection requirements, but the mobile phone and tower industries told the OMB that figure doesn’t even come close to the cost of the federal mandate. Moreover, wireless providers and the tower sector argue the backup power rule’s burdensome requirements will have the unintended effect of draining resources needed to quickly restore communications to consumers and first responders when facilities are damaged in natural disasters.
PCIA, an industry association representing top tower companies, called the FCC backup power reporting requirements “totally erroneous and unrealistic.”