Irene takes out cell towers, disrupts communications

Storm affects 1,400 cell sites, FCC reports

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

In addition to cell site disruptions from power outages or other problems, 132,000 wired voice subscribers 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 for 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, when Irene was 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 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, excessive flooding and higher-than-normal calling volumes.

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

At Sprint, a 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 following Irene's hit, all of them backed by a highly redundant communications system, said Keith Robertory, manager of national disasters emergency communications for the Red Cross in Washington. That redundancy includes cell phones on all the major carriers, 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," he said.

Robertory said no single carrier seemed to have more outages than any other from the storm because they often share towers, which can be damaged in many ways from a hurricane. Typically, he said, a hurricane doesn't send a tower crashing to the ground, but can cause flooding that disconnects circuits or causes a power outage to the tower. Sometimes the problem is just a simple misalignment of an antenna due to strong winds, he said.

"There's no bulletproof cellular carrier," Robertory said, based on his six years of experience with disaster responses across the U.S. He credited the cellular carriers with adding backup 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 e-mail address is .

Read more about mobile and wireless in Computerworld's Mobile and Wireless Topic Center.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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