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Published: Saturday, 6/2/2007

Close the cell phone gap

MORE people are abandoning land lines and relying only on cellular telephones. But there's a hidden drawback: Cell phone users could find themselves without service when electrical power goes down. It's happened before, and, nature being what it is, it will happen again. Cellular telephone providers need to work faster to develop backup plans that last longer than a few hours so that service is uninterrupted during emergencies.

The latest example happened May 6 when a tornado virtually destroyed Greensburg, Kan. Residents in that region suffered the same ordeal in January during an ice storm and power lines were down for days. Cell phones also were worthless during the power blackout of August, 2003. Certainly, families increasingly rely on cell phones to check on one another, but emergency personnel rely on the phones too. And because a growing number of people don't have land lines anymore, pay phones are nearly as rare as pterodactyls.

During the disasters in Kansas, some emergency personnel carried three or four phones, each from a different provider. When one phone stopped working, they tried another.

Cell phone providers have generators that close gaps in service during brief power outages. But they don't last very long, and long-term service is precisely what is needed during disasters. One company, Sprint Nextel, last year poured $27 million into expanding its emergency response team to aid emergency workers with relief efforts. Its competitors should follow suit, and the Federal Communications Commission should provide incentives.

Cell phone companies suggest customers send text messages during emergencies, since text messaging uses less power. That may be fine for young people and the technologically astute. But it doesn't work for the elderly or those with poor eyesight or limited dexterity. Plus, most people caught up in a disaster want to talk to somebody, and they should be able to do so.

Cell phone providers should be pushed to work harder to make sure that wireless lines of communication are always open.

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