Wireless Service Recovers Slowly From Hurricane Sandy Devastation

NEWS ANALYSIS: As wireless service slowly returns to hurricane-devastated areas of the Northeast U.S., carriers are bringing in generators and entering into extraordinary arrangements to provide service to customers.

While wireless service slowly returns to the areas of the Northeastern U.S. pounded by Hurricane Sandy, two wireless companies are taking extraordinary steps to make sure that customers of both companies have the service they need.

AT&T and T-Mobile announced Oct. 31 that the two companies have entered into a mutual roaming agreement. "AT&T and T-Mobile have entered into an agreement to enable roaming on their networks to customers of both companies in the heavily impacted areas and where capacity is available and for subscribers with a compatible device," a T-Mobile spokesperson said in a joint release issued by the two companies.

The press release noted that both companies use compatible GSM/UMTS networks on the same frequencies, allowing their devices to make calls on either network. Customers may see that their phones are using the other carrier's network, but they should be able to make and receive calls normally and will be free of any roaming charges.

"This will be seamless for AT&T and T-Mobile customers with no change to their current rate plans or service agreements even if the phone indicates the device is attached to the other carrier's network," the spokesperson said.

While the mutual roaming arrangement is unusual, it's not unprecedented. Both companies (AT&T was called Cingular at the time) made similar arrangements during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. The mutual roaming agreement will no doubt help customers in the badly hit areas near New York and New Jersey communicate. However, wireless communications remain difficult in areas hit hardest by the hurricane.

On Oct. 30 the Federal Communications Commission announced that about 25 percent of cell towers in the affected area were out of service. The FCC's chief of the Public Safety and Homeland Security Branch, David Turetsky, said in a press briefing Oct. 31 that the situation had improved and that "a few percent more" wireless sites were now operational. Previously, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski had said that he expected the number of operational cell sites to decrease as batteries wore down and emergency generators ran out of fuel.

Turetsky said that instead, carriers were moving mobile generators to their cell sites and continuing to refuel the sites running on generators. Unfortunately, not every problem can be fixed with some generators and diesel fuel. "Some carrier facilities are under water," Turetsky said. "Power outages remain, water remains a problem. Damage remains a problem. But conditions are improving."

Turetsky noted that unlike some press reports, the cell sites weren't actually blown over or otherwise destroyed. "They're out because of power outages, damage or the inability to connect to the network."

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...