Irene takes out cell towers, disrupts communications

Storm affects 1,400 cell sites, FCC reports

Communications networks took a hit from Hurricane Irene, as 1,400 cell towers and cell sites were damaged or disrupted -- mainly in Virginia, New Jersey, New York and North Carolina, the Federal Communications Commission said Monday.

In addition to cellular service disruptions from power outages or other problems, land line phone service and other forms of communication were also affected: 132,000 wired voice subscribers had lost service as of Sunday, while 500,000 cable customers lost service, mostly in Virginia, an FCC spokesman said in an email early Monday. Three broadcast radio stations were also down during at least part of the storm, he said. The FCC didn't say what percentage of the thousands of cell towers along the East Cost were affected.

On Sunday afternoon, after Irene had been downgraded to tropical storm status, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski said there had been "some wireline and wireless outages" but no major damage to the communications infrastructure, except in coastal regions hit hard by the storm. "We are pleased that current reports indicate no 9-1-1 center is without service, and we have received no reports of public safety communications outages," he added.

While the FCC reported specific numbers of problems, the three major U.S. wireless carriers issued more general comments that indicated they were working to repair outages quickly. AT&T, Verizon Wireless and Sprint all said via email that they had seen a variety of problems related to downed trees and power lines, flooding and higher-than-normal calling volumes.

AT&T issued a statement Monday saying that it saw "some impact from the loss of commercial power and equipment damage" and noting that technicians were in the field assessing damage and beginning repairs. Overall, AT&T said: "We are very pleased with how our network has performed, given the size of Hurricane Irene."

A Sprint spokeswoman said crews were making repairs Monday. "Overall, our wireless networks performed well, despite some service disruptions in the hardest hit areas along the East Coast as a result of the loss of commercial power and local wireline service," she said.

Verizon Wireless had a similar report on Monday after the hurricane was downgraded to a tropical storm and had skirted off into eastern Canada. "Our network infrastructure is built for reliability and stood up well to the storm," a spokesman said via email. "No significant damage.... Some cell sites in communities that have lost commercial power are operating on our own emergency backup generators to help us continue to provide wireless service to our customers."

The American Red Cross sent thousands of volunteers into flooded and damaged communities after Irene hit, and all of the volunteer efforts were supported by a highly redundant communications system, said Keith Robertory, manager of national disaster emergency communications for the Red Cross in Washington. That redundancy includes cell phones on all of the major carriers' networks, satellite phones, satellite trucks with electric generators to power other devices, and two-way radios that operate on public safety, business and amateur radios bands.

"When so many people use cell phones, it can clog up the system, so the way we mitigate that is to carry phones on multiple carriers," Robertory said.

Robertory said no single carrier seemed to have more outages than any other, because they often share towers, which can be damaged in many ways during a hurricane. Hurricanes don't typically knock over cell towers, he said, but they can cause flooding that disconnects circuits, and they can cause power outages that disrupt the operation of cell tower. Sometimes the problem is just a simple misalignment of an antenna due to strong winds, he said.

Robertory said that in his six years of experience with disaster responses across the U.S., he has found that "there's no bulletproof cellular carrier." He credited the cellular carriers with adding backup systems and toughening their networks after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans six years ago.

"Every carrier had its spotty areas after Irene hit," Robertory said.

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 email address is

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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