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Exclusive: Europa hoops for mobile network outages

PARIS/STOCKHOLM/MILAN, Sept 29 (Reuters) – Once unthinkable, mobile phones could go dark across Europe this winter if blackouts or energy rationing knock out parts of mobile networks across the region.

Russia̵[ads1]7;s decision to cut gas supplies via Europe’s key supply route in the wake of the Ukraine conflict has increased the chances of power shortages. In France, the situation is made worse by several nuclear power plants being closed for maintenance.

Telecoms industry officials say they fear a severe winter will put Europe’s telecoms infrastructure to the test, forcing companies and governments to try to mitigate the impact.

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For now, there are not enough backup systems in many European countries to handle widespread power outages, four telecom executives said, raising the possibility of cellphone outages.

EU countries, including France, Sweden and Germany, are trying to ensure communications can continue even if blackouts end up draining backup batteries installed on the thousands of mobile antennas scattered across their territory.

Europe has almost half a million telecom towers, and most of them have battery backup that lasts around 30 minutes to power the mobile antennas.


In France, a plan put forward by electricity distributor Enedi includes potential blackouts of up to two hours in the worst case, two sources familiar with the matter said.

The general black-outs would only affect parts of the country on a rotating basis. Essential services such as hospitals, police and government will not be affected, the sources said.

The French government, telecoms operators and Enedis, a unit of state-controlled utility EDF ( EDF.PA ), have held talks on the matter over the summer, the French government and the sources said.

The French Federation of Telecoms (FFT), a lobby group representing Orange (ORAN.PA), Bouygues Telecom (BOUY.PA) and Altice’s SFR, put the spotlight on Enedis for not being able to exempt antennas from the blackouts.

Enedis refused to comment on the content of the talks held with the government on the matter.

Enedis said in a statement to Reuters that all regular customers were treated equally in the event of exceptional power outages.

It said it was able to isolate parts of the network to supply priority customers, such as hospitals, key industrial installations and the military, and that it was up to local authorities to add telecom operators’ infrastructure to the list of priority customers.

“Perhaps we will improve our knowledge of the matter by winter, but it is not easy to isolate a mobile antenna (from the rest of the network),” said a French finance ministry official with knowledge of the talks.

A spokesperson for the French finance ministry declined to comment on the talks with Enedis, the telecoms groups and the government.


Telecom companies in Sweden and Germany have also raised concerns about potential power shortages with their authorities, several sources familiar with the matter said.

The Swedish telecoms regulator PTS is working with telecom operators and other public agencies to find solutions, it says. It includes conversations about what will happen if electricity is rationed.

PTS is funding the purchase of transportable fuel stations and mobile base stations that connect to mobile phones to deal with longer power outages, a PTS spokesperson said.

The Italian telecoms lobby told Reuters it wants the mobile network to be excluded from blackouts or energy-saving shutdowns and will take this up with Italy’s new government.

The blackouts increase the likelihood of electronic components failing if they are exposed to sudden interruptions, telecom lobby chief Massimo Sarmi said in an interview.


Telecoms equipment makers Nokia ( NOKIA.HE ) and Ericsson ( ERICb.ST ) are working with mobile operators to mitigate the impact of power shortages, three sources familiar with the matter said.

Both companies declined to comment.

The European telecoms operators must review their networks to reduce extra power consumption and modernize their equipment by using more power-efficient radio designs, the four telecom executives said.

To save power, telecom companies use software to optimize traffic flow, put towers to “sleep” when not in use and turn off different spectrum bands, the sources familiar with the matter said.

The telecoms operators are also working with national authorities to check if plans are in place to maintain critical services.

In Germany, Deutsche Telekom has 33,000 mobile radio sites (towers) and its mobile emergency power systems can only support a small number of them at the same time, a company spokesperson said.

Deutsche Telekom ( DTEGn.DE ) will use mobile emergency power systems that rely mainly on diesel in the event of prolonged blackouts, it said.

France has around 62,000 mobile towers and the industry will not be able to equip all antennas with new batteries, said FFT president Liza Bellulo.

European countries, which have been used to uninterrupted power supply for decades, usually do not have generators that back up power for long periods of time.

“We are perhaps a bit spoiled in large parts of Europe where the electricity is quite stable and good,” said one telecom industry executive. “Investment in the energy storage space has perhaps been less than in some other countries.”

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Reporting by Mathieu Rosemain in Paris, Supantha Mukherjee in Stockholm and Elvira Pollina in Milan; Additional reporting by Inti Landauro in Madrid; Editing by Matt Scuffham and Jane Merriman

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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