Will Your Phone Fail In the Next Quake? - NBC Southern California
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Will Your Phone Fail In the Next Quake?

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    NEWSLETTERS

    As phone companies move away from copper to fiber optics, the risk of having landlines go down in the event of earthquakes and other disasters increases. Randy Mac reports for the NBC4 News at 11 p.m. on May 20, 2015. (Published Thursday, May 21, 2015)

    Telecom companies are switching over to new technology that could make communication impossible for millions of customers in the aftermath of a major earthquake or other disaster.

    For decades, telephone companies relied on traditional copper lines for landline phones, which have proven reliable in the wake of mass power outages.

    Industry experts say the lines keep working because copper conducts electricity, so even in the event of a power failure, standard, non-cordless telephones can continue to operate for days, even weeks.

    That ability to communicate brought hope in the midst of despair to Mike Kubeisy, who survived the collapse of the Northridge Meadows Apartments when a 6.7 temblor hit Los Angeles in 1994.

    While the phone lines in his own ruined apartment building were cut, the same was not true for his neighbors.

    "They were calling from their apartment from a landline," Kubeisy told the I-Team.

    But in recent years, Telecom companies have been installing fiber optic cables to replace the copper ones, because fiber is less expensive to maintain, and offers faster delivery of high-speed data.

    Verizon’s FiOS and AT&T’s U-Verse networks both rely on fiber optic cables.

    But the cables are made of thin strands of glass, which don’t conduct electricity: if the power fails, so do the new cables.

    "If [the telecom companies] have fiber to you," former Caltech engineer John Dundas said, "you have to have UPS (Uninterrupted Power Supply) or a generator or something like that."

    Cell phone service may go down as well, because many cell towers are also powered by the new fiber lines.

    Reached by the I-Team for comment, Verizon spokesman Harry Mitchell said "Fiber is more resilient and reliable than copper," pointing to its decision to replace its flood-damaged copper network with fiber optic cables after Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

    An email sent to AT&T for comment was not returned.

    The safe bet, says Dundas, is to make sure you have a backup battery system in place if your home phone relies on fiber optic lines.

    And if you have a choice, think twice before giving up your old-school phone system entirely.

    "All of us in our family, we have cell phones, but we also have a copper landline,” Dundas said.

    The Federal Trade Commission is now considering whether to impose backup power requirements on Internet companies that provide phone service.

    Comcast, Cablevision, Cox, Time Warner and Verizon already offer backup batteries for sale, but customers have to request them, and keep them charged.

    Both AT&T and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association have argued that forcing providers to supply battery back-ups would have, “limited benefit”.

    For information on how to request backup batteries from the telecom companies that offer them, you can follow these links:

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