March 3, 2021

Cellphone Networks Stood Up Well to Hurricane Irene

Wireless phone networks held up well against Hurricane Irene despite widespread losses of power.

Many people who lost electricity were able to communicate using e-mail and social networks, thanks to battery-powered mobile devices.

As cleanup crews and homeowners began to assess the scope of the damage on Sunday, wireless phone companies were reporting that the storm’s effect on their networks was minimal and that most customers did not experience cellular disruptions, despite the high winds and ferocious rains. The providers said the full extent might not be known until after the storm moved offshore.

The Federal Communications Commission, which activated the Disaster Information Reporting System, an online tool that helps the agency gather information and assess the breadth of damage to the communications networks, is still gauging the extent of the disruptions. It said Sunday that no 9-1-1 center was without service and that it had received no reports of public safety communications disruptions.

Late Sunday afternoon, Julius Genachowski, the chairman of the F.C.C., said that a handful of radio sites and thousands of wirelines went down during the storm, leaving 132,000 landline subscribers without service. The majority of those were concentrated in North Carolina and Virginia. The F.C.C. said that 1,400 cell sites along the coast were down, and several hundred were running on backup power.

Mark Siegel, a spokesman for ATT, said Irene battered the company’s network in several areas, including North Carolina, Virginia, Delaware and Washington, D.C. The company is still working to assess the storm’s effect in New York, he said.  “We are ready to respond as soon as our crews are safely able to,” he added.

Representatives at T-Mobile reported similar findings, saying that the damage to their networks was minimal. “We’re seeing, on average, a 10 percent impact across the East due to power outages and flooding,” said Troy Edwards, a spokesman for T-Mobile. “The majority of these outages are in our Virginia and Carolinas footprint.”

Crystal Davis, a spokeswoman for Sprint, said wireless service was spotty in parts of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut because of a loss of commercial power and local landline service.

Verizon’s network was “performing well,” said a spokesman, Howard Waterman. “Some cells in areas that lost commercial power have backup generators helping us continue to deliver wireless service,” he said.

What at first could appear paradoxical — Twitter and Facebook users posting that they had lost power — was feasible thanks to smartphones, laptop computers and tablets. In the days leading up to the hurricane’s arrival, advice to charge all portable devices became almost as commonplace as old standbys like making sure flashlights had batteries and bottled water was in supply.

Indeed, many people who lost power and access to news on television could view news over the Internet on battery-powered computers or cellphones. People with mobile battery chargers in their cars could recharge.

The rise of mobile devices turns the conventional wisdom about landline telephones on its head. For decades, the landline phone was trusted to be more reliable than the electricity grid because the phone network’s dedicated power supply often survived blackouts. 

But the evolution of the landline — which first saw cordless phones (that do not work in blackouts) and Internet-based telephony (which requires a battery backup in case of blackouts) — has led to a decrease in its reliability. That hole has been filled, to some degree, by wireless voice and data networks.

Sam Grobart contributed reporting.

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