Hurricane Sandy knocked out 25 percent of all the cell towers in the 10 states that the massive storm hit, according to federal regulators.
And while service has remained relatively strong after Sandy hit land, the situation could get worse before it improves. Many of the cell sites still online are running on backup power from generators, which could run out of fuel before regular commercial power is restored, according to officials with the Federal Communications Commission.
Speaking to reporters during a conference call Oct. 30, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski reportedly noted that the situation remains tenuous, and that problems with cell towers and other communications facilities are far from being solved.
"This was and still is a devastating storm with a serious impact on our nation's communications infrastructure," Genachowski said. “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.”
Even though Sandy already has come ashore, leaving a wide swath of destruction in its path, it continues to move to the north and west, threatening more outages as it goes, FCC officials said.
According to the Associated Press, landline telephone service held up well in the areas on the East Coast impacted by Sandy. However, a quarter of the cell towers were put out of service.
Sandy, a superstorm that included a hurricane and nor’easter and ravaged communities from Virginia to Maine, came ashore Oct. 29 in southern New Jersey, devastating huge portions of that state and New York City. The storm, which brought hurricane-force winds and widespread flooding, knocked out power to millions of residents up and down the coast, and emergency-response officials have said that it could take 10 days to two weeks or more for power to be restored to normal.
Officials with wireless carriers, including AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile, in statements Oct. 30 talked about service interruptions throughout the East Coast from power outages and flooding, and the efforts to get things back up and running.
"As we continue to closely monitor our wireline and wireless networks for service disruptions, we are experiencing some issues in areas heavily impacted by the storm," AT&T officials said in a statement. "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. We are deploying personnel and equipment as soon as it is safe to do so."
Sprint officials noted the challenges of assessing the situation and quickly addressing the problems amid such widespread destruction.
"Sprint is experiencing service impacts in the states affected by Hurricane Sandy and the concurrent winter weather conditions, particularly in the New York tri-state area, the Washington, D.C., metro area, Pennsylvania and parts of New England," they said. "These impacts are due to loss of commercial power, flooding, loss of cell site backhaul connections, site access and damaging debris. Weather and safety conditions are still dire in some areas, but our 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 cannot provide a specific number of impacted customers, but we ask that they remain patient at this time and exercise caution in the aftermath of the recent events."
Officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in a Twitter message urged residents in the impacted areas to use text messages or social networks to communicate with others, noting that text messages use up less network bandwidth than cell phone calls. Texting and social networks would lessen the amount of traffic and number of bottlenecks on wireless networks.
“Phone lines may be congested during/after #Sandy. Let loved ones know you're OK by sending a text or updating your social networks,” FEMA officials said in a Twitter message Oct. 29.
During the call with journalists the next day, the FCC’s Genachowski reportedly backed that suggestion, saying that as much bandwidth as possible should be kept open for emergency personnel.
"We've seen broadband and social media continue to play an important role in communication for people during this storm," he said, according to Cnet. "Social media is a critical platform for sharing information with loved ones. And it's been vital in keeping those other communications networks open for first responders."