Wireless Networks Almost Back to Pre-Sandy Levels as New Storm Lands

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2012-11-07

Wireless Networks Almost Back to Pre-Sandy Levels as New Storm Lands

The nation’s wireless carriers were bracing to respond to damage caused by a new powerful storm that battered the Northeastern U.S. Nov. 7, just as massive repair efforts in the wake of Hurricane Sandy had restored service to near-normal levels.

By the time Hurricane Sandy has passed by, a quarter of the wireless communications infrastructure in the Northeast region was offline. In a few cases, the cell sites were destroyed. But most of them simply had no power or their backhaul connection was offline. But regardless of the reason, customers had lost all access to wireless or even landline communications, including a way to call for help.

In what is becoming a growing level of cooperation, two major wireless companies agreed to work together. As they did during Hurricane Katrina, AT&T and T-Mobile once again opened their networks to customers from either network without any roaming fees or other complications. Meanwhile, wireless companies threw open the doors of any of their stores that survived to provide charging centers to any customer of any carrier. Most of these stores also provided free phone service to people who need to reach loved ones.

Meanwhile, reconstruction of the network continued. Verizon Wireless had over 96 percent of its wireless sites in the affected area operational by Nov. 2, the end of the week in which Sandy hit. As of Nov., 97 percent of T-Mobile’s network is now operational. AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel told eWEEK that 98 percent of its network is now operational in the areas affected by Hurricane Sandy. A Sprint spokesperson told eWEEK that Sprint’s network was 92 percent restored, while Sprint’s data partner Clearwire announced that it has set up distribution of free 4G Internet service at its 94th Street store in Manhattan.

Siegel told eWEEK in an email that AT&T is fortifying its fuel distribution to the more than 3,000 generators in the impacted area, including those running cell sites and other key locations. Meanwhile, the company staged resources to be able to keep providing service and resources in the face of a strong fall storm that brought wind, rain and snow to the hurricane-battered Northeast on Nov. 7.

Siegel said, “AT&T is also taking steps to protect its network and recovery assets deployed in the region, given potential weather changes in the coming days.” Among the steps AT&T is taking are securing the equipment it deployed to prevent further damage, continuing close coordination with emergency officials and first responders, and positioning resources to keep their critical equipment safe and operational.

Wireless Networks Almost Back to Pre-Sandy Levels as New Storm Lands

Notably, the extraordinary agreement between AT&T and T-Mobile remains in force. Siegel said the company is “continuing a special agreement with T-Mobile to enable roaming across both companies’ networks seamlessly and free of charge to customers with compatible devices and where capacity is available.”

“With a Nor’easter forecast to hit the Northeast beginning tomorrow [Nov. 7] and into Thursday, T-Mobile is making preparations for any impact this new storm may have on our network and service we provide to our customers in the area,” a T-Mobile spokesperson said in a press release. “Additional engineers have arrived in the N.Y. and N.J. region, and have now joined our local rapid-response teams to provide even more on-the-ground support. We are preparing our staging areas and equipment, and readying for this new storm.”

T-Mobile also emphasized the company’s agreement with AT&T to support the customers of both companies. “As we have previously announced together with AT&T, a joint agreement remains in place between our two companies, allowing customers of either company to utilize whichever network is most available in their area. This agreement provides additional access to wireless services for customers of both companies.”

While the storm that’s hitting the Northeast isn’t expected to be nearly as severe as last week’s hurricane, it’s hitting a vast area of very fragile infrastructure. A significant amount of the wireless service is provided by temporary and mobile cell sites, temporary switching centers and control centers. Many of these temporary facilities are trailers, light trucks and shipping containers that have been converted into the facilities necessary to provide service. They are not built to withstand major storms.

Because of the nature of the temporary wireless infrastructure, customers can expect at least some degradation of service at least until after the storm passes. But because the carriers are being proactive about preparing their temporary sites, significant damage should be minimal.

But the same can’t be said about the rest of the public service infrastructure. Hastily repaired power lines could fail again. Shoreline areas that were flooded by the hurricane storm surge could be flooded again, especially given that the protective seawalls, dunes and levees have been destroyed in many areas.

Then, on top of all that has happened, when the Nor’easter passes, the area that suffered a hurricane a week before will now be faced with high winds, rain and snow. If the wireless companies ever needed to be there for their customers, this is the time. Fortunately, there’s every indication that this is indeed what’s happening.

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