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Why Earthquake-Resistant Cell Phone Towers Are Worth the Money

It's not necessarily a life-or-death service, but those anti-quake towers bolster morale—and the economy.
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A worker inspects a palm tree-shaped cell tower, which is apparently a real thing. (Photo: Russ Allison Loar/Flickr)

A worker inspects a palm tree-shaped cell tower, which is apparently a real thing. (Photo: Russ Allison Loar/Flickr)

Last week, Los Angeles became the first American city to require that new cell phone towers be built to withstand an earthquake. Previously, cell towers only needed to be able to resist falling (and killing people) during a quake, the Los Angeles Times reports.

This new law is a reflection of changing times. The last major California earthquake was in the Northridge neighborhood of Los Angeles, in 1994. Most of the general public didn't have cell phones then, nor did they rely much on the Internet. But around the world, other regions' more recent quakes offer examples of how profoundly California's next tremblor could affect mobile service:

  • After a magnitude 8.8 earthquake rocked Chile in 2010, more than 90 percent of the populace experienced problems with their landline phone, cell phone, or Internet service.
  • In Christchurch, New Zealand, cell service went down for about five days after a magnitude 6.3 earthquake in 2011.
  • More than 2,300 cell phone towers fell during the magnitude 7.9 earthquake that hit Sichuan, China, in 2008. As a result, cell service outages lasted weeks. Sichuan's experience was particularly motivating to American officials because China's cell tower building standards are similar to America's, United States Geological Survey seismologist Lucy Jones told the Times.

What do people tend to use cell phones for after an earthquake? Quake victims mostly report that they want to tell friends and family that they're safe. But people have turned to their phones during disasters for more urgent needs too. During the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in 2011, people tweeted requests for help. One example tweet: "We're on the 7 floor of Inawashiro Hospital, but because of the risen sea level, we're stuck. Help us!"

Keeping—or returning—mobile service is also important to restoring a region's economy after a disaster. Even disasters with few injuries or deaths can damage offices and the infrastructure businesses rely on. For many businesses, cell service can be as important an operational tool as working roadways. Indeed, Los Angeles is approaching its commitment to quake-proof cell towers as an investment in recovery, more than immediate health and safety. "It's about getting us back on our feet," Jones told the Times. Getting businessfolk to log back onto their email after an earthquake isn't a life-or-death consideration, but it's one every city will want to think about after it has ensured its citizens are safe.