Do Cell Towers Need Power?

What would we ever do without cell phones? We’ve become so dependant on our devices and the “comfort in connectivity” that without them, well, we become paralyzed. I’m all for the technology. So, in my mind, I try to figure out how to work with it not against it. That can be difficult for many as it forces us to rely on someone else to provide a service — in this case a critical one.

Do cell towers need power? Yes, they do. Cell towers run on electricity so when the power goes out so does the cellular service. In some cases, cell towers have battery backup, generator backup, or both to keep them running for 24 – 48hrs without having to recharge batteries or refill the generator. Provided the generator is accessible, and fuel supply isn’t a problem, the site can run indefinitely.

Having spent 16 years in telecommunications this is an area I’m all too familiar with. High demands for cell phone connectivity, ubiquitous coverage, and zero downtime. Right? I wish it were that easy. Quite a bit goes into providing cellular service under normal circumstances and keeping the network running during an outage isn’t impossible, but requires planning and logistics.

This article will take a look at what you can expect from cellular carriers during emergencies, learn about flying COWs, and alternatives that will help you communicate during an outage.

Yes, I said flying COWs.

What Katrina Taught Us

When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, roughly 70% of New Orleans’ cell towers were damaged or destroyed. The communication network was incapable of providing service and it opened everyone’s eyes to the vulnerability of the cellular infrastructure during weather events. In the aftermath, the FCC to pushed wireless carriers to supplement all their towers with generators capable of delivering power for a minimum of 8 hrs.

At the time there were close to 200,000 towers in the United States and the wireless carriers pushed back because of the price tag. One estimate was close to $15,000 per tower, which would push the total price tag close to $3 billion. The carriers weren’t assured the cost could be recouped through fees passed along to…you got it…you and me.

In addition, the carriers faced complexities in servicing various cell sites. Some sites are mounted on rooftops that can’t support the weight of batteries needed to deliver 8 hrs of service. I found one article that suggested the weight of that many batteries would be close to 1500lbs.

The problem…

Those batteries are chared by the grid. So, once they’re depleted the only way to recharge them would be the grid. In some cases, the batteries were backed up by a local generator. For rural sites the generator could be small and last for hours and in larger metropolitain areas the generators were very large and capable of lasting much longer.

The only difficulty is keeping the generators fueled. If roads become impassable those remote cell towers will run out of fuel and stop working.

Our Dependency Makes Things Worse

The reality is our cell phones have become more integrated into our lives. With each passing year, we’re leaving behind our landlines and relying heavily on wireless carriers to provide us service. So, our ability to make contact with first responders is determined by the status of our wireless network.

During Hurricane Harvey, the city of Houston didn’t issue mandatory evacuations so many people decided to stay in their homes. Massive amounts of people ended up needing to call for help but couldn’t because the cellular network was down.

Even if the towers were operable, or even just a few, the congestion of that many people trying to use the service can cause outages. It won’t bring down the network, but you’ll be unable to make and receive calls. Depending on the tower you’ll start to push the limits after a few hundred users. Hopefully newer technology and more wireless spectrum will allow sites to handle more capacity.

There Is Hope

I really don’t intend to paint a poor picture of any cellular network. Having been employed by one, I recognize the difficulty in providing service — even in the best of circumstances — let alone during an emergency. Since Katrina, every wireless carrier learned quite a bit about preparedness and augmented more towers with backup batteries and/or generators.

Also, for every story you hear about network failures or shortcomings just know there are an equal amount of success stories.

My intent is to make sure you know what to expect. That way you can better prepare.

Can Technology Help?

It can. Advancements in battery technology allows companies, like GE, to manufacturer some pretty cool equipment like their sodium-ion Durathon batteries. They’re a fraction of the size of their lithium-ion counterparts and promised longer life. Cost, like anything else, became a limiter in the success of the battery in cellular circles. I think innovations like this push the industry in the right direction and helps us think outside of the box. Until we’re all relying on satellites for communications we’ll need to push the technological envelope on backup options.

Maybe we need a self-contained, wind-powered, solar-supplemented cell tower that looks like a pine tree. Hmmm, might need a little work. Hey Elon Musk! Can you help us out here?

What’s the COW you mentioned?

Cell On Wheels. These handy portable cell towers can be deployed by the wireless carriers to accomplish a few objectives:

  1. Handle additional capacity in an area that has been inundated with too much cellular traffic. Possibly a central area where hurricane victims are gathering along with rescue personnel.
  2. Temporarily replace coverage for towers that are damaged or destroyed. Once the main network is restored the COW can be redeployed to another location.

Almost all of the large national wireless carrier have response teams. Those teams are ‘on-call’ during major events and are responsible for getting COWs to the affected areas. Carriers also have crews stagged throughout various states in preparation for an impending storm. Those teams can help with COWs, man fuel trucks to top off generators, and stage needed equipment after a storm hits.

Ever See a COW Fly?

If not, look to the sky in future emergencies. You just might see a flying COW. What? Beyond pushing the technological boundaries on batteries and generators — cellular carriers are pushing the limits elsewhere. They’re taking their high-speed networks to the sky.

In mid-2018, Verizon began testing a 200-pound unmanned drone that carried a piece of network equipment called a “femtocell”, which turned the drone into a winged cell tower.

Also, in 2017 after Hurricane Maria impacted Puerto Rico AT&T utilized their Cell On Wings (COW) to help restore cellular service to parts of the damaged island.

I love it. Merging technologies that provide new solutions to age-old problems. Kudos to the carriers for their dedication to this initiative. Solutions like this can be rapidly deployed and make an immediate impact to effected areas.


The reality is you may not be in an impacted area to count on a drone swinging by and provide you coverage or a pizza. So, I looked at the main things you’re losing when your cell phone goes down to create this list. To me – it really boils down to two buckets:

  • Receiving information
  • Sending information

During an emergency, you’ll want a way to receive weather, news, and even some nice music to pass the time. The best way is through an emergency weather radio. To avoid running out of batteries you can find radios that are powered by a hand-crank, has a built-in USB phone charger and has AM/FM/NOAA receiving capabilities. Additional lighting features turns one of these devices into a pretty useful tool during an outage.

To call for help you may want to consider a reasonably priced two-way radio. With two-way radios you’ll have a direct feed to first responders (land and air). This technology has taken a back-seat for many years, but can provide an amazing alternative to cellular service.

What I like about both of those options is that they’re portable, which means if you have to leave your home — these pieces of equipment can go with you. What I like about two-way radios is that most have the ability to receive weather information, so you have a device that can send and receive. The only difference is that you’ll need to manage batteries with a two-way radio.


Though cell towers need power they do have backup options in place to provide connectivity when the lights go out. Cellular carriers are consistently working to keep their networks running by adding new battery technology, supplementing towers with generators, or even implementing new technology like drones to provide short-term connectivity.

Similarly, consider implementing a backup communication strategy for your home. While you have your landline or cell phone as your primary means of communication, you may want a backup option to maintain connectivity when your carrier is unable to provide service.

Check out our recommended gear page for the best communication solutions.

Good luck. Be safe.

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