For most of us, waiting forHurricane 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 anadditional 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 amobile 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 ishoused in a tractor-trailer.
Use WiFi Telephony Where Possible
Sprint Nextel reports that there was some loss of service, mostly due to loss of commercial power, but the company has already dispatched teams with generators and repair teams to bring the network fully on line. Sprint maintains a fleet of COWs and COLTs, so those are probably included in the mix of repair teams.
Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile have also established charging facilities for customers at their stores where they’re providing free phone service and Internet access to anyone-not just their own customers. Verizon Wireless reports that the vast majority of their company stores on the East Coast are open to help customers.
So with all this going on, why is it that you still can’t use your cell phone? The basic answer is capacity. Even though you may see an indication of a strong signal on your phone, that doesn’t help much if the cell site you’re trying to reach is already loaded to capacity. You can keep trying, but even if you do get connected, there’s a good chance that you’ll get dumped when someone with a higher priority needs the site.
The wireless companies all recommend that you use Short Message Service (SMS) text messaging if at all possible. SMS requires very little bandwidth. Delivery isn’t time-sensitive, so chances are that your message will get through, even if it takes a few minutes. You might also try using a landline phone. While their circuits can also be overloaded, you don’t also have to contend with the problem of an overloaded cell site. T-Mobile recommends that you try WiFi calling if your phone is equipped for that. Then your call goes outside of the normal wireless network and travels instead on the Internet.
The bottom line is that if you’re in an area that’s still suffering the effects of the hurricane, reliable cell phone service may be a few days away. The first responders need the access more than you do, and that’s why they get first dibs. Incidentally, if you need to get a message out that involves an emergency, health and welfare, or personal safety, and you know or can find a ham radio operator, they will be able to get your message out.
You can probably find a ham radio operator in your neighborhood, but most shelters, emergency operating centers and many hospitals or fire stations will be staffed by amateur radio operators who are members of the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (RACES) who are trained to handle emergency communications.
The amateur radio folks can’t help you with your business needs, but they can save your life. That’s probably more important. In the meantime, be patient. Your cell phone will work in a couple of days.