Despite Problems After Sandy, Wireless Providers Resist Change

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Cell phones are as much a necessity as electricity or water in the digital era, just ask anyone who lost service when Sandy knocked out a quarter of the cell towers across ten states in the storm's path.

"I realized, oh, if there’s actually an emergency, I don’t know if a call would get through," said Lori McCaskill, a resident of Sunset Park, Brooklyn, who lost her Verizon Wireless service right after the storm and just as her sister was due to have a baby. 

Like thousands of others, McCaskill had no bars, no 4G, no texts or calls and was completely cut off from her friends and family. 

This week on New Tech City, reporter Tracey Samuelson investigates how cell network providers are responding to Sandy and what they are doing to prepare for future natural disasters.

One commonly proposed solution is to mandate that cell towers have back-up power, like generators; however, some sites in the city aren’t zoned for that.

"There are some buildings in some zoning areas where we can have back-up generators and others where we’re not allowed to," said Crystal Davis, who manages crisis communications for Sprint Nextel.

AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile declined requests for interviews. CTIA-The Wireless Association, a trade group for wireless providers, responded by resending a statement from the initial days after the storm in which it said the cell networks had performed well.

According to Susan Crawford, author of the book Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age, the end of Ma Bell and the shift to a more competitive phone and wireless industry did not enhance or ensure reliable service.

"We assumed that cable would compete with phone, phone would compete with wireless, and that therefore we didn’t need to have this whole super structure of regulation," Crawford said. "It turns out we were wrong."

Now that a third of Americans have cell phones and no landlines, service interruptions can cause a lot more harm than they did in the past, Crawford said.

Plus, Chet Kanojia, the CEO of web startup Aereo that streams TV over the web, talks about his company's legal battle with the big broadcasters like NBC, ABC and CBS.