Consumer advocate calls for wider cell phone access during disasters

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WASHINGTON (Gray DC) -- A week after Hurricane Michael's landfall, many in the Panama City area still don't have Verizon cell phone service.

The company says it continues to work around the clock to connect its customers back to the outside world.

Harold Feld, the senior vice president of the consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, is pushing for lawmakers to act.

Feld said competed cell phone companies should be forced to work together during an emergency to ensure people can communicate.

He said, “Companies should have mandatory roaming agreements, which means companies use each other’s networks. So that if one is down, you can roam on the other network free of charge while the emergency is lasting.”

Feld said after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, his group tried to get the Federal Communications Commission to mandate this. However, the effort was unsuccessful.

Feld said, “That’s something that either state law or federal law could fix tomorrow.”

Doctor Suresh Subramaniam, an engineering professor at George Washington University, said there's a potential stumbling block to the idea.

He said Verizon phones can't make calls while connected to a tower operated by AT&T because of differing technologies.

However, he said internet data and text messages should be supported.

He said, “Basically, there’s no… there’s a lack of will in making this happen. Technology-wise, it can be done.”

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