The earth was trembling and buildings were crumbling, but telecommunications systems held up remarkably well last Wednesday during the strongest earthquake that Seattle has experienced since 1949. Measuring 6.8 on the Richter scale, the quake injured hundreds, may have killed one and caused about $1 billion in damage by early estimates.
Television and radio reporters asked people to refrain from making frivolous phone calls to keep available lines free for emergency communications — apparently to little avail.
In the first few hours after the earthquake, Sprint PCS saw a tenfold increase in normal call volume on its network. "When that happens, we have a high call block rate," said a Sprint PCS spokesman. With networks so full, many callers heard fast busy signals or recorded messages saying that all circuits were busy.
Landline voice communications were also in heavy demand after the quake. Local calling on Sprints network was 50 times to 100 times normal. Qwest Communications International reported 40,000 calls in a five-minute span through one Seattle central office; the norm is about 7,000.
For most of the day, it was extremely difficult to make phone calls over landline or wireless connections, and some reports had all cellular networks completely down.
Wireless operators, however, said that for the most part their networks remained operational, due to redundancies they built into their systems to handle such crises. The problem, they said, was that few people complied with requests to stay off the phone. "The one issue we cant control is demand," said Lisa Bowersock, a spokeswoman at Verizon Wireless. The Verizon Wireless network here experienced four times to six times the volume typical of a snow day or holiday, she said, most likely setting a new record.
In addition to the 17,000 residents in the area who went without power, some Sprint PCS and Verizon Wireless cell sites also lost power. Backup systems, either batteries or diesel generators, kicked in when five Verizon Wireless cell sites and one of three switches lost power. Those backup solutions can operate for two to three days.
Verizon Wireless also has a call center in the Seattle area that was shut down after the quake to assess potential structural damage to the facility. Since the center typically shares volume with another center in Tempe, Ariz., it was a fairly simple process to shift the Seattle facilitys load to Tempe temporarily, Bowersock said.
While many Seattlites couldnt make phone calls for hours, they could easily send and receive e-mail. Speakeasy Network, a Seattle Internet service provider, said it didnt notice any major surge in traffic or hear complaints about slow service. Internet services other than dial-up connections are routed differently than voice calls so the capacity problems facing voice operators didnt affect most providers, said a Speakeasy spokeswoman. Speakeasy connects to the Internet through Internap Network Services, which houses its facilities in an earthquake-proof room that wasnt affected by the tremors last week, she said.
But some Internet services were affected. The U.S. Geological Surveys Web site was deluged after the quake and couldnt handle all requests for information.