Hurricane Sandy: Wireless carriers restore most disrupted service

Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ), AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T), Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S) and T-Mobile USA continued to make progress during the weekend to restore service disrupted by Hurricane Sandy last week, with the carriers reporting major progress in New York and New Jersey especially.

Despite the progress, some former FCC officials and local emergency response officials are questioning whether carrier networks are as resilient as they should be. Wireless carriers successfully sued to block FCC rules that would have mandated that they install backup batteries at all their cell sites. Many cell sites do have backup power, but they failed after the storm produced prolonged power outages in the affected areas.

Still, the carriers pointed to measurable progress in restoring their networks. Verizon said 98.1 percent of its cell sites are working in the area impacted by the storm, which first made landfall on the night of Oct. 29.  Verizon said Sunday it will waive voice and text overage charges for customers in certain areas around New York City and New Jersey for usage between Oct. 29 and Nov. 16.

AT&T said in a statement that across the region impacted by Sandy 96.5 percent of its cell sites are up and running. "More than 90 percent of our cell sites across New York City including Manhattan are back in service, up from 80 percent on Thursday," AT&T said on Sunday. "We expect to make continued good progress as power and other infrastructure issues are resolved."

Sprint said it fully restored service to customers in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania. Sprint's network in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut is now 85 percent operational, but engineers continue to work in portions of New York City, Long Island, Fairfield County, Connecticut, as well as communities in northern and central New Jersey, which were the areas hardest hit by the storm.

T-Mobile said in a statement Sunday that its service was 95 percent operational across the entire Northeast, and that it had restored wireless service to almost 95 percent all five boroughs of New York City. "On Staten Island, we are still working to restore many sites, but coverage is being provided to the entire borough, and generators are being deployed to increase coverage," the carrier said. "In New Jersey, most remaining issues are related to power. We continue to dispatch generators to cell sites where we can gain access amid the devastation." AT&T and T-Mobile collaborated to share service for affected customers in New York and New Jersey.

Carnegie Mellon University Prof. Jon Peha, who used to be the chief technologist at the FCC, told the Wall Street Journal that carriers are not required to publicly report how reliable their networks are, which makes them less incentivized to prepare for natural disasters. The carriers have said they have spent billions upgrading their networks for disasters since the Sept. 11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina.

"It's possible that if the public knew which wireless companies were more reliable, that market forces--people shifting to the more reliable network--would give incentives for everyone to be reliable," Peha said. "But if the public doesn't know, there are no market incentives."

For more:
- see this Dow Jones Newswires article 
- see this WSJ article (sub. req.)
- see this ZDNet article
- see this IDG News Service article
- see this AllThingsD article

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