PARIS/STOCKHOLM/MILAN, Sept 29 (Reuters) – As once imagined, mobile phones across Europe could go dark this winter if power cuts or power rationing knock out parts of mobile networks across the region.

Russia’s decision to cut off gas supplies through Europe’s main supply route in the wake of the Ukraine conflict has raised the possibility of power shortages. In France, the situation is worsened by the shutdown of several nuclear power plants for maintenance.

Telecoms industry executives say they fear the severe winter will test Europe’s telecoms infrastructure and force companies and governments to try to mitigate the impact.

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Many European countries currently do not have adequate back-up systems to handle large-scale power cuts, four telecom executives said, increasing the likelihood of mobile phone outages.

European Union countries, including France, Sweden and Germany, are trying to ensure communications can continue even if back-up batteries installed on thousands of cellular antennas spread across their territory run out.

There are nearly half a million telecom towers in Europe and most of them have battery backups that last about 30 minutes to power mobile antennas.

France

In France, a plan put forward by electricity distributor Endis includes possible power cuts of up to two hours in a worst-case scenario, two sources familiar with the matter said.

A general black-out will affect only some parts of the country. Essential services like hospitals, police and government will not be affected, sources said.

The French government, the telecoms operator and Endis, a unit of state-controlled utility EDF ( EDF.PA ), have discussed the issue over the summer, the French government and sources said.

A lobby group representing the French Federation of Telecoms ( FFT ), Orange ( ORAN.PA ), Bouygues Telecom ( BOUY.PA ) and Altice’s SFR, highlighted Endis’ inability to exempt it from power cuts.

Ndis declined to comment on the content of discussions with the government on the issue.

Endis said in a statement to Reuters that all regular customers were treated equally during the exceptional outage situation.

It said it was able to isolate sections of the network to cater to priority customers, such as hospitals, major industrial installations and the military, and it was up to local authorities to add telecom operator infrastructure to the list of priority customers.

“Maybe we will improve our knowledge on this subject by this winter, but it is not easy to isolate mobile antennas (from the rest of the network),” said a French finance ministry official with knowledge of the discussions.

A spokesman for France’s finance ministry declined to comment on discussions with Andes, the telecoms group and the government.

Sweden, Germany & Italy

Telcos in Sweden and Germany have raised concerns with their governments about potential power shortages, multiple sources familiar with the matter said.

Swedish telecoms regulator PTS is working with telecom operators and other government agencies to find a solution, it said. It includes a discussion about what will happen if power rationing occurs.

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

The Italian telecoms lobby told Reuters that mobile networks should be excluded from any power cuts or energy-saving stoppages and would extend them with Italy’s new government.

Power outages increase the chance of electronic components failing, Massimo Sarmi, head of the telecoms lobby, said in an interview.

Traffic flow

Telecom gear 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.

European telecoms operators should review their networks to reduce excess power consumption and modernize their equipment using more energy-efficient radio designs, four telecom executives said.

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

Telecom operators are working with national governments to check whether there are plans to maintain critical services.

In Germany, Deutsche Telekom has 33,000 mobile radio sites (towers) and its mobile emergency power system can support only a small number of them at once, a company spokesman said.

Deutsche Telekom ( DTEGn.DE ) will use a mobile emergency power system that relies mainly on diesel in the event of prolonged power outages, it said.

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

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

“We’re a bit worse off maybe in large parts of Europe where electricity is pretty stable and good,” said a telecoms industry executive. “Investment in energy storage may be lower than in some other countries.”

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

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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