Mobile networks were damaged more by the February 22 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, than by the 2010 quake that devastated Haiti, according to the chairman of a company that owns carriers in both countries.
The infrastructure in New Zealand was hit more heavily because it relied on shared towers and commercial power, Trilogy International Partners Chairman John Stanton said during a keynote panel discussion at the CTIA Wireless trade show in Orlando, Florida on Thursday.
The way mobile infrastructure is deployed in the US and many other developed countries, with cell sites designed to be unobtrusive and shared among carriers, could make it vulnerable to widespread disasters like the recent earthquake in Japan, Stanton said.
In the January 12, 2010, quake in Haiti, Trilogy-owned carrier ComCEL lost only 26 cell sites out of more than 300, Stanton said. (Trilogy's estimate of cell sites out of service a few weeks after the quake was higher.) A key reason for the network's resilience was that each cell site had its own battery and generator and a long-lasting supply of fuel.
"There's essentially no commercial power in Haiti," Stanton said. Each cell site also has security guards because the fuel is so valuable it invites theft, he added.
In Christchurch, the government required mobile operators to collocate their antennas on shared towers for environmental reasons. Where those towers went down, service from all the carriers was lost, and at other locations, service went out quickly if the electrical grid had failed, Stanton said. As a result, service from all three carriers went out for about five days following the quake, he said.
In the US, carriers rely on portable generators distributed around the country and count on being able to deploy those to the scene of a disaster where cell sites have failed, Stanton said.
"The wireless systems are not, in general, serviced by more than a couple of hours of battery backup and not serviced by generators," Stanton said. "The premise in the US is essentially that a disaster will be isolated."
In addition to heading Trilogy partners, Stanton is chairman and acting CEO of US WiMax operator Clearwire. He did not discuss that company during Thursday's keynote discussion, which also included Twitter co-founder Biz Stone and Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth.