PARIS, Sept 29: Once unthinkable, mobile phones could go dark around Europe this winter if power cuts or energy rationing knocks out parts of the mobile networks across the region.
Russia's decision to halt 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 shutting down 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. Currently there are not enough back-up systems in many European countries to handle widespread power cuts, four telecoms executives said, raising the prospect of mobile phone outages.
European Union countries, including France, Sweden and Germany, are trying to ensure communications can continue even if power cuts end up exhausting back-up batteries installed on the thousands of cellular antennas spread across their territory.
Europe has nearly half a million telecom towers and most of them have battery backups that last around 30 minutes to run the mobile antennas.
In France, a plan put forward by electricity distributor Enedis, includes potential power cuts of up to two hours in a worst case scenario, two sources familiar with the matter said. The general black-outs would affect only parts of the country on a rotating basis. Essential services such as hospitals, police and government will not be impacted, the sources said.
The French government, telecoms operators and Enedis, a unit of state-controlled utility EDF, have held talks on the issue over the summer, the French government and the sources said.
The French Federation of Telecoms (FFT), a lobby group representing Orange, Bouygues Telecom and Altice's SFR, put the spotlight on Enedis for being unable to exempt antennas from the power cuts.
Enedis declined to comment on the content of the talks held with the government on the matter. Enedis said in a statement to Reuters all regular customers were treated on an equal footing in the event of exceptional outages.
It said it was able to isolate sections 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 telecoms operators infrastructure to the list of priority customers.
"Maybe we'll improve our knowledge on the matter by this winter, but it's not easy to isolate a mobile antenna (from the rest of the network)," said a French finance ministry official with knowledge of the talks. -REUTERS