Hurricane Sandy: 19% of cell sites still down in storm-hit areas

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Wireless carriers continued to struggle as of Thursday to fully resolve service outages on their networks as a result of the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy, yet they and the FCC reported progress in those efforts. Still, some questioned whether the continuing outages exposed problems with the carriers' backup plans for operating in natural disasters where power is knocked out for a significant period of time.

The FCC said Thursday that around 19 percent of cell sites were out of service in the areas hit by the storm, stretching from Virginia to Massachusetts, but that figure was down from the 25 percent that the FCC reported Tuesday and 22 percent on Wednesday.

Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ), AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T), Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S) and T-Mobile USA were working to restore service to the storm-hit areas. The main concern is that backup batteries and generators at cell sites are running out of power. Wireless carriers have fought proposed FCC regulations that would require them to install backup batteries at all of their sites. The carriers have argued it is in their best interest to make their networks redundant--without regulations.

"Overall, we're seeing both continued improvement in communications networks and also that much work remains to be done to restore service fully," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in a statement issued Thursday afternoon. "The supply of fuel to generators is essential to keep communications service up and running, and we're working with federal, state and local authorities to speed fuel delivery. This is a priority because our commercial communications networks are essential to emergency response and recovery efforts, as well as to commercial activities and connecting with family."

Jamie Barnett, who retired as chief of the FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau earlier this year, told the Wall Street Journal he was unsure if market forces were sufficient to force carriers to improve their networks' reliability after disasters. "There may be a price we do need to pay, in essence on our monthly phone bills, to make sure that we can communicate in the worst of times," he said.

Verizon said it is working to restore wired and wireless communications to affected customers, adding that 96 percent of its wireless network "from Maine to Virginia" is operational. Still, according to Reuters, Verizon indicated that the storm could "significantly" impact its fourth-quarter earnings.

AT&T, which has collaborated with T-Mobile to share service for affected customers in New York and New Jersey, was vague about its progress in repairing service, but Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York said that AT&T has promised to supply trucks that would offer charging stations and wireless connections in areas without coverage or power, according to the Journal.

Sprint said in a statement issued Thursday that it had made "significant progress" for customers in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, where its CDMA network is more than 90 percent operational. "In New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, Sprint's network is more than 80 percent operational, but challenges remain for the hardest hit areas of these states, including metropolitan New York City and portions of the New Jersey coast," Sprint said. "In New York City, for example, approximately three-quarters of the network is operational, but challenges remain in obtaining commercial power, backhaul connections and gaining safe access to cell sites."

T-Mobile USA said it, too, was making progress and said it was working with federal and local emergency authorities to restore service, especially in parts of Staten Island and lower Manhattan. "We're happy to report that network restoration in NYC is now at 85 percent and Staten Island has improved to 80 percent," T-Mobile said in a statement. "The agreement between T-Mobile with AT&T to share networks in N.Y. and N.J. is already providing customers of both AT&T and T-Mobile improved experiences in the hardest-hit areas."

For more:
- see this WSJ article (sub. req.)
- see this IDG News Service article
- see this USA Today article
- see this Washington Post article
- see this separate WSJ article (sub. req.)
- see this Reuters article
- see this NYT article

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