Blackout Makes Communicating Difficult

Communications proved difficult during the Blackout of 2003.

Communications proved difficult during the Blackout of 2003, as many new IP phone systems were rendered useless without backup and a number of wireless services fell flat.

Though some cellular carriers fared better than others in the massive power outage this month, no one could avoid the fact that even wireless technology depends on electricity.

Sprint PCS Group, AT&T Wireless Services Inc., T-Mobile USA Inc. and Cingular Wireless LLC reported significant problems resulting from a mix of tower outages and calling traffic that was up to four times greater than normal. Verizon Wireless had fewer problems, thanks to more backup generators and battery backups than its competitors, said officials for Verizon, in Bedminster, N.J.

Though most switching centers remained operational, the blackout did affect individual cell sites. Officials at Sprint, in Overland Park, Kan., said they had added larger generators to switching sites after Sept. 11, 2001.

The terrorist attacks also encouraged carriers to prioritize calls in an emergency. Sprint blocked a significant percentage of some incoming calls—they would not reveal the percentage—to make room for those in the blackout who had to call out.

Blackout victims also had to deal with cell battery issues. Stephen Meyer, managing director at Handshake Dynamics LLC, a management advisory company in New York, paid a local deli owner $10 for access to a generator to recharge his cell phone. "Most of my friends had IP phones or cordless land-line phones, so they were out of luck too," Meyer said.

In some isolated instances, businesses lost ISDN and T-1 line connections, even though those connections dont rely on a power supply at a customers premises.

Reduced enterprise phoning options may have been responsible for a spike in instant messaging early on in the blackout. Manhattan-based IM provider Omnipod Inc., a large portion of whose customers are businesses in New York, experienced a 30 to 35 percent increase in network traffic as soon as the blackout occurred.