© Reuters. A mobile phone repeater behind an electric pylon in Tilloy-les-Cambrai, France, September 23, 2022. REUTERS / Pascal Rossignol
PARIS / STOCKHOLM / MILAN (Reuters) – Once unthinkable, cell phones could be turned off across Europe this winter if power cuts or energy rationing partially knock out the region’s mobile networks.
Russia’s decision to cut off gas supplies through Nord Stream, following the conflict in Ukraine, has increased the chances of energy shortages. In France, the situation is aggravated by the closure of several nuclear power plants for maintenance.
Telecoms officials say they fear a harsh winter will strain Europe’s telecommunications infrastructure, forcing companies and governments to try to mitigate its impact.
Four telecom executives said there are currently insufficient back-up systems in many European countries to handle large-scale power outages, with the prospect of mobile phone outages.
The countries of the European Union, including France, Sweden and Germany, are trying to ensure that communications can continue even if the power outages end up depleting the backup batteries installed on the thousands of cellular antennas scattered across their territory.
Europe has nearly half a million telecommunication towers and most of them have backup batteries that provide around 30 minutes of power.
In France, a plan presented by electricity distributor Enedis predicts potential power outages of up to two hours at worst, according to two sources familiar with the matter.
General blackouts would affect only parts of the country on a rolling basis. Essential services, such as hospitals, police and government, will not be affected, the sources said.
The French government, telecommunications operators and Edf, a unit of the state-controlled utility company EDF, held talks on the matter over the summer, according to both the French government and sources.
The French Telecommunications Federation (Fft), a lobby group representing Orange, Bouygues (EPA 🙂 Telecom (BIT 🙂 and SFR, has turned the spotlight on Enedis for its inability to exempt antennas from power outages.
Enedis declined to comment on the content of the talks it had with the government on the matter.
In a statement released to Reuters, Enedis said all repeat customers were treated equally in the event of exceptional outages.
Enedis said it is able to isolate sections of the network to supply priority customers, such as hospitals, key industrial and military facilities, and that it is up to local authorities to add telecommunications operators’ infrastructure to the list of priority customers.
“Perhaps by this winter we will improve our knowledge on the subject, but it is not easy to isolate a mobile antenna (from the rest of the network),” said a French finance ministry official familiar with the talks.
A spokesman for the French Ministry of Finance did not comment on the talks with Enedis, the telecommunications groups and the government.
SWEDEN, GERMANY AND ITALY
Telecom companies in Sweden and Germany have also raised concerns about the potential electricity shortage with their respective governments, several sources with knowledge of the matter reported.
Swedish telecoms regulator Pts is working with telecom operators and other government agencies to find solutions. This includes discussions of what will happen in the event of an electricity rationing.
The PTS is funding the purchase of transportable fuel stations and mobile base stations that connect to cell phones to handle longer power outages, a PTS spokesperson said.
Italy’s Assotelecomunicazioni told Reuters that it wants the mobile network to be excluded from any power outage or energy saving and that it will raise the issue with the new Italian government.
Power outages increase the likelihood that electronic components will fail if subjected to sudden interruptions, Massimo Sarmi, president of Assotelecomunicazioni, said in an interview.
Nokia and Ericsson are working with mobile operators to mitigate the impact of the power outage, three sources with knowledge of the matter reported.
The companies did not comment.
The four telecom executives said European operators need to overhaul their networks to reduce extra energy use and modernize their equipment using more energy-efficient radio designs.
To save energy, telecom companies are using software to optimize traffic flow, to make towers “sleep” when not in use, and to shut down different spectrum bands, sources familiar with the matter said.
Telecom operators are also collaborating with national governments to verify the existence of plans to maintain critical services.
In Germany, Deutsche Telekom has 33,000 mobile radio sites, and its emergency mobile power systems can only support a small number of them at one time, a company spokesperson said.
Deutsche Telekom said it will use emergency mobile power systems that rely primarily on diesel in the event of prolonged power outages.
France has about 62,000 mobile phone towers and the industry will not be able to equip all antennas with new batteries, FFT president Liza Bellulo said.
Accustomed to an uninterrupted power supply for decades, European countries usually do not have generators that supply power for longer periods.
“Maybe we’re a bit spoiled in much of Europe, where the electricity is pretty stable and good,” said a telecommunications executive. “Investments in the energy storage sector were perhaps lower than in other countries.”
(Translated by Luca Fratangelo, Chiara Scarciglia editing Stefano Bernabei)