Wireless carriers prep for Hurricane Irene

Top carriers say storm hasn't impacted their networks yet, but they're prepared for the worst

The nation's largest wireless carriers today are preparing for Hurricane Irene as it moves up the East Coast. The storm had not affected wireless networks by mid-day Friday, they said.

AT&T, Verizon Wireless and Sprint have all already made elaborate preparations, including readying thousands of vehicles that operate as portable cell towers that can quickly replace permanent ones damaged by floods or high winds.

Meanwhile, this week's earthquake in Virginia showed that cellular networks don't need to be damaged to incur call disruptions. Following the quake, a flood of voice calls overwhelmed even some robust networks for a time.

Thus, the carriers are urging wireless customers to either text or resort to email or social networks to communicate during Irene and other disasters. "During an emergency situation, text messages may go through more quickly than voice calls because they require fewer network resources," AT&T said in a statement.

AT&T is urging that non-emergency calls be kept to a minimum during the storm, and advised users to keep wireless phone batteries charged at all times and that emergency numbers and email addresses be programmed into the devices.

The top carriers have prepared lists of tips for users on their Web sites. The tips can be found here: AT&T ; Sprint; and Verizon.

The carriers are urging small businesses to set up call-forwarding services to a predetermined backup location. AT&T suggests that businesses add a backup cellular service as well. AT&T's service is called Remote Mobility Zone, which allows a business set up a small cell site at a business location for use in emergencies.

As Irene bore down on the Carolinas late Friday, AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel said there had been "no impact" on its networks from Irene along the Florida coast. He added: "We are not going to predict what might or might not happen as the storm progresses."

All the carriers operate national or regional operations centers to monitor where damages from emergencies occur so crews can respond quickly as needed.

Sprint also reported this afternoon that the storm had not disrupted its network. "We're still awaiting its landfall in the Carolinas and Mid-Atlantic area," a spokeswoman said.

She noted that Sprint started preparing for Irene since it first appeared as a significant tropical storm in the Atlantic last week. The company is prepared to deal with "substantial power outages and flooding," she added.

Sprint moved portable satellite and cellular towers in vehicles from Houston and Orlando to Washington which would put them within a few hours of both New York City and North Carolina coastal areas if needed.

Verizon said it was moving trucks and other portable equipment away from low-lying areas. Like the other carriers, Verizon said it was arranging emergency fuel deliveries to regional switching offices to keep generators functioning in the event a prolonged power outage.

The carrier noted that the rollout of the Verizon 4G LTE network has helped prepare the carrier for a storm with added and more efficient network capacity.

Verizon also noted that it has both backup battery and generators at its switching locations and a vast majority of its cell tower sites. "Throughout many previous severe weather conditions, like this one expected this weekend, our network has performed very well," Verizon spokesman Tom Pica said in an email to Computerworld. "We have been through this before."

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.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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