Irene's wrath leaves 6,500 cell towers out, FCC says

Storm's movement through New England adds to hits on communications

Updated figures released by federal officials on Monday showed 6,500 cell towers and sites were damaged or disrupted as a result of Hurricane Irene. That number includes about 44% of all cell sites in Vermont, which suffered massive flooding that cut off dozens of towns.

The Federal Communications Commission updated its count of outages at 3 p.m. EDT Monday, based on reports to the FCC by registered communications providers.

The FCC reported more than four times as many cell site outages on Monday it did Sunday afternoon, taking into account the more recent ravages of Irene in New England states such as Vermont and Connecticut. Monday's count was 6,500, compared with 1,400 cell site outages on Sunday.

The Monday figures also showed 210,000 wired customers out of service Monday afternoon, compared to 132,000 on Sunday. Twice as many customers, 1 million, were without cable service on Monday, compared with 500,000 on Sunday, the FCC said.

Also, two TV stations and 10 radio stations were down as of Monday afternoon, the FCC said.

The updated FCC figures show about 44% of all cell sites were out in Vermont, 35% in Connecticut, 31% in Rhode Island and 25% in Virginia. In North Carolina, the percentage dropped to 11% of cell sites down, an improvement from 14% of the total registered Sunday, the FCC said.

Many times, cell site outages are due to power failures. Sometimes power can be restored quickly to the cell sites by providing gasoline-powered portable generators to the sites, carriers and rescue officials said. Flooding at the base of cell towers can cause circuit disruptions, or an antenna at the top of a tower could be blown out of alignment, requiring a relatively minor repair. Rarely are 120-foot-tall cell towers knocked completely over.

The FCC and the carriers do not track wireless outages by numbers of subscribers, since a cell phone's failed transmission to one tower could transmit to another working tower nearby.

Despite the increased outages reported Monday, the three largest wireless carriers -- Sprint, Verizon Wireless and AT&T-- issued statements Monday morning saying their crews were making repairs and that no significant network outages had been encountered after the storm moved into Canada.

The FCC confirmed that no major network switch was knocked out of service in the storm. On Sunday, the FCC reported all 9-1-1 centers as well as public safety officials had retained communications.

The FCC has been counting communications outages using mostly voluntary reports provided by the communications companies. The FCC took the action as a result of the widespread and prolonged network outages that occurred following Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast six years ago.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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