Mobile Phone Carriers to FCC: “You Didn’t Build Us”

Listening in to my car radio, I heard this story and was amazed. Their summary:

 “T-Mobile and AT&T have cut an emergency deal to share their cell phone networks in areas affected by Superstorm Sandy. They’re trying to make it a little easier for customers to get a signal as carriers restore their networks. Some say companies should be forced to make their networks more resilient.”

The story quotes Harold Feld, a “senior vice president at Public Knowledge” which it describes as a “pro-consumer organization.” It looks to me like the organization does do some good work, but in this case Feld is being pro-Big-Government, not pro-consumer.

Here’s the deal: During and after Sandy, some areas lost twenty-five percent of their towers. Back during Katrina, New Orleans lost seventy percent of their towers. The difference was not due to the severity of the storms. The difference was that the mobile carriers saw what happened, learned how to make their towers less vulnerable, and implemented changes. The main problem during Katrina was that towers lost power. Equipping towers with backup power was an expense. But all the carriers knew that if only their towers failed during the next hurricane or other disaster, they were sure to lose market share as unhappy consumers took their business to their competitors.

As Quartz reports:

 “Mobile carriers’ desire to remain operational in the face of catastrophe has spawned an entire industry producing ever-denser and more robust battery systems for cell towers, and many of the most important cell towers have backup generators, some of which are even fueled by natural gas piped directly to them.”

 So amid all the bad news of the hurricane, here we have some good news to report, right?

Well no. The fact that some towers failed at all proves to some people that the Federal government can do it better. The FCC needs to require the carriers to do more and ensure make sure that every single tower has eight hours of backup power. From Feld’s comments, it seems that, because the mobile phone is now a part of “the infrastructure” it must operate as well as he wants it to under crisis conditions, and the government has the magic power to make this happen.

Please. If the government is concerned about infrastructure, then I can point them to some roads and bridges that they might devote their resources to. Leave mobile phone carriers alone. Feld is not being rational here—the US Post Service should . He is voicing a religious faith. The mobile carriers already live at the mercy of the consumers. They know that if they fail them by either pricing their products too high, or by failing to serve them under crisis conditions, that they will lose customers. They are in a better position than Feld or anyone at the FCC to figure out how to balance the social needs of the American people as they decide how to allocate resources.

But in a crisis, every single fantasy about how something might have worked better is treated as a rational plan for improving life. I’m sure that all the mobile carriers are developing many such plans, hoping to find one that will give them an edge over their competitors. But wishing for Federal involvement is not a plan. And there is no evidence that it will make life better. It will raise mobile prices higher than they are now, or stop other investments that the mobile carriers would otherwise make. Central planning doesn’t work.

In fact, as the mobile industry shows, even public infrastructure can be created by private society. And it will work better and more efficiently than the government’s creations.