Hurricane Sandy: 25% of cell sites down, more could be on the way

Wireless networks generally held up well during the onslaught of Hurricane Sandy, which battered the East Coast Monday night and Tuesday, but wider service disruptions are possible as backup battery power at cell sites is drained in areas with widespread power outages.

Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ), AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T), Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S), T-Mobile USA and other carriers were working to asses and repair the damage caused by the powerful storm, which devastated New Jersey and the New York City metropolitan area in particular.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said Tuesday afternoon that 25 percent of cell sites in 158 counties in 10 states from Virginia to Massachusetts were not operational. He indicated that service would get worse for those affected before it gets better as backup batteries and generators at cell sites fail.

"This was and still is a devastating storm with a serious impact on our nation's communications infrastructure," Genachowski said during a conference call, according to CNET. "The storm is not over. And our assumption is that communications outages could get worse before they get better, particularly for mobile networks because of the flooding and loss of power." The FCC did not provide figures for exactly how many wireless customers were affected by the storm.

The FCC also said there were a small number of 911 call centers affected by Sandy. He said some 911 calls were being rerouted to backup call centers.

Meanwhile, wireless carriers worked feverishly to restore service in affected areas. Verizon, which is based in New York City, said that the storm surge from Sandy "resulted in flooding at several key Verizon facilities in Lower Manhattan, Queens and Long Island, interrupting commercial power and rendering backup power systems at these sites inoperable. In some cases, Verizon teams have not been able to access the sites, due to flooding and safety concerns. In others, teams are working round-the-clock to reroute and restore services."

On the wireless side, Verizon said that its network held up well, with 94 percent of its cell sites in the Northeast online and switching and data centers running normally. "Although our network teams are working to restore areas where customers may be experiencing some service issues, the majority of the problems are 'out-of-service' sites resulting from multiple factors, including telecommunications provider service disruption, power outages and flooding in low-lying areas such as the tip of lower Manhattan," Verizon Wireless CTO Nicola Palmer said in a statement issued Tuesday.

AT&T said in a statement that it was closely monitoring its wireline and wireless networks for service disruptions and was "experiencing some issues" in areas heavily impacted by Sandy. "We are in the initial stages of performing an on-the-ground assessment of our network for damage and crews will be working around the clock to restore service," AT&T said. "We are deploying personnel and equipment as soon as it is safe to do so."

Sprint said in a company blog post issued Tuesday evening that it was "experiencing service impacts in the states affected by Hurricane Sandy and the concurrent winter weather conditions, particularly in the New York tri-state area, parts of Pennsylvania, and parts of New England. This is due to loss of commercial power, flooding, loss of cell site backhaul connections, site access and damaging debris."

Additionally, Sprint said its "technicians are assessing the damage and servicing sites as they become known to us and as the areas are deemed safe to enter. Given the ongoing weather conditions, we ask that our customers remain patient at this time and exercise caution in the aftermath of the recent events."

T-Mobile said in a statement issued Wednesday that its network engineers were working as quickly as possible to restore service to areas affected by the storm, and that in Washington, D.C., its network was more than 90 percent operational. In New York City, T-Mobile said its network was more than 80 percent operational. "T-Mobile rapid response engineering teams have staged equipment throughout the areas most severely impacted and continue to make assessments regarding how quickly we may be able to begin restoration, and where it is needed most," the carrier said.

In the wake of the storm, TracFone said it will extend the service renewal deadlines for more than 185,000 Straight Talk, Net10, TracFone and Simple Mobile customers in 15 states.

For more:
- see this Reuters article
- see this WSJ article (sub. req.)
- see this separate WSJ article (sub. req.)
- see this CNET article
- see this USA Today article
- see this ZDNet article

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