Hurricane Irene Leaves Disrupted Mobile Phone Service in Its Wake

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2011-08-29 Print this article Print

News Analysis: Hurricane Irene churned up the Eastern seaboard and no longer exists. But it left behind a lot of damage. And one way or another, that helps explain why you still may not to make calls on your mobile phone.

For most of us, waiting for Hurricane Irene to pass was more than an annoyance, but not really a crisis. For a few, the storm was deadly; it uprooted lives along with ancient trees, caused widespread flooding and destroyed its share of homes.

It also uprooted businesses that were without power Aug. 29, in some cases without access to their facilities and in a few cases, underwater. Depending on where you were, cell phone coverage was the least of your problems.

But while the storm has dissipated, many people still don't have reliable cell phone coverage. If you're surprised, you shouldn't be. The same factors that affected phones on the East Coast during the earthquake a week ago, affect them now. Basically, there's too much demand, and not enough capacity. In addition, unless you're a first responder or a government official, you don't have the priority codes to gain access to otherwise overcapacity cell sites.

However, unlike the problems after the earthquake, wireless providers have an additional set of challenges. The most obvious is that cell towers are tall objects that can be blown over in high winds and in some cases, that's what happened. A more common problem is that many cell sites rely on commercial power and when that went out, so did the cell site. While many cell sites have emergency generators, those can't be installed in every case, such as when the cell transmitters are on top of a building and the landlord doesn't want a generator.

Now wireless companies are busily engaged in restoring service where necessary, and keeping existing cell sites running. AT&T was hard hit in its eastern North Carolina locations, and has already dispatched cells on wheels (COWs) and cells on light trucks (COLTs) to provide service. Here's a video of the AT&T team dispatching the trucks to keep things running in the wake of Irene.

Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile reported minimal damage, and are working to keep their cell sites running by refueling generators as needed and bringing in mobile generators where possible. Verizon Wireless also dispatched the company's Verizon Experience Vehicle, which is really a mobile office with complete wireless, voice over IP and Internet capability to King and Queen County, Virginia. This county was particularly hard hit by the hurricane.

The vehicle will be used by the local government and emergency services organizations to provide communications and a work area until restoration can be accomplished to the county's facilities. The VZW Experience vehicle is housed in a tractor-trailer.  

Wayne Rash Wayne Rash is a Senior Analyst for eWEEK Labs and runs the magazine's Washington Bureau. Prior to joining eWEEK as a Senior Writer on wireless technology, he was a Senior Contributing Editor and previously a Senior Analyst in the InfoWorld Test Center. He was also a reviewer for Federal Computer Week and Information Security Magazine. Previously, he ran the reviews and events departments at CMP's InternetWeek.

He is a retired naval officer, a former principal at American Management Systems and a long-time columnist for Byte Magazine. He is a regular contributor to Plane & Pilot Magazine and The Washington Post.

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