Do Cell Phones Work During Power Outages?

So, this seems to be a hard question to get an answer to.

Do mobile phones keep working when the power goes out?

Answer #1: They don't legally have to have power backup.

In North America, there is no regulatory requirement for cell phone companies to have systems to keep them online when the electricity goes out, which is different for landline telephones, where some exchanges have been up continuously since the 1920s. 

Answer #2: But cell phones often do keep working. 

Often, providers will put battery backup systems in their towers. Often, these towers can last for several hours, before they go out. At that point, I doubt that the cell phone company would come by to recharge them or leave a generator. Certainly, some major cell phone towers might have a battery backup AND a generator, especially the kind of tower that other towers connect to in order to connect to the regular phone system. Often, these batteries should be replaced every 2-3 years, as they degrade.

Another important thing to consider is that YOU might be in the footprint of multiple cell phone towers, so if a nearby tower goes out, you can connect to a further away one, but it will use your cell phone battery up faster, and may be congested with more people using it.

My experience using cell phones during power outages

In MY experiences, in two power outages, on a Canadian GSM network, the system stays up 50% of the time. Once, in an area with coverage likely from one tower, it completely died, another time, in a perhaps not-very-widespread outage, it stayed up. So, it is hard to say. 

What If Others Really Need to Use the System?

I wouldn't worry too much about making phone calls in the event that others might have to call 9-1-1, since the system is designed to DROP regular calls in order to make sure 9-1-1 calls get completed. But if you're really worried, send text messages, 100 text messages could be sent in the amount of cell phone network use from 1 SECOND of voice calls. 

Also, if your phone can technically work on another provider's network which you have reception to, 9-1-1 calls should go through it, even if you don't subscribe to them or don't have a SIM card in your phone. 

So You Tell Me

Please leave your comments on your experiences with mobile phones during power outages. Be sure to include your location, provider, and how long/widespread the power outage was. 

Seattle Storms of 2006

I was living in Burien Washington (Seattle Annexation Neighborhood) and was involved in the "hurricane" storms of 2006, matter of fact they happened on my birthday.

I was a T-Mobile customer then, my roommates Cingular (pre AT&T name change), and other friends Verizon and Sprint customers. When our power went out, the battery backup at the building I lived (which had GSM AT&T/T-Mobile towers built on it) went on immediately. We were able to complete messages over AIM, use the computer via T-Mobile Total Internet and Comcast Internet and notify everyone via email our power was off, and that our mobile phones would be the only lifeline we had. At the time, we also had Comcast Digital Voice. The battery backup for that lasts 3 hours WITHOUT using Internet (which stays up as the battery powers the phone AND modem).

By the next morning, Comcast was totally dead, and internet on the phones were dead. Texts and Voice were still active however.

Driving back through White Center toward downtown, I was able to still complete calls for the next 24 hours. After this time, I asked T-Mobile (when I got to towers with power, and downtown Seattle which never lost power), how long it would be before towers would "drop" calls. They "estimated" about 24-72 hours before each individual tower would kill the connections and die out. This was based on "text", "voice" and "data" usage on each tower. Higher used towers used more juice.

Estimates were correct, within 3 days (our power was off for 5 FULL DAYS!), I checked again, taking a bus to my home for clothes changing (I was staying with friends), and yes, all GSM signals from both T-Mobile and Cingular were dead. However, I did notice that a person on the bus, using a CDMA phone....SPRINT.... Was able to connect and STILL place calls, and was actually commenting that people who had T-Mo and Cingular were dead fish.

I asked my friend at Sprint why, she didnt really have an explanation but said, "...maybe cause it uses less power to transmit the calls TO the phone and the phone uses more of its battery to pick up the call and transmit it to the station. GSM is pretty energy efficient in the phone, but not at the tower" - thinking this was likely the case, as GSM has a superior battery life, I accepted it as an answer. Less power = LESS USAGE.

So.... Answering the question...

GSM towers will likely go dead FASTER due to the lower wattage in the phone to TX/RX the call, and tower use more power to do the same - Also another reason is that there are MORE GSM towers for the same coverage as CDMA... More people can connect to single towers, draining life quickly.

CDMA towers will likely go dead SLOWER due to the higher wattage of the PHONES connecting TX/RX, but the tower uses almost NO POWER at all - Additionally, less towers, and less power mean more spotty "on" towers over "off".

Does this make CDMA better in power outages then GSM? Not really. Depends how you look at it. Between the two, you MIGHT be able to get the same amount of call time, based on TOWER battery use, and PHONE battery use, it might actually get more time total talk out of GSM to be honest.

At least thats my theory.

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