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.”
Wireless Service Recovers Slowly From Hurricane Sandy Devastation
Customers using cable for Internet, phone and television were having service restored as well, and the level of outages was now below 20 percent, Turetsky said.
The FCC wasn’t willing to break out the number of outages by carrier. However, Verizon Wireless spokesperson Melanie Ortel told eWEEK that the company had fared well through the storm. “More than 96 percent of our towers from Maine to Virginia are operational and supporting Verizon Wireless customers. The network performed well in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, due largely to sustained network investment, which includes permanent backup generators at most sites.”
“Network teams continue round-the clock restoration efforts to those sites still affected and offline due to lack of commercial power or connectivity—predominately in New York City and northern New Jersey,” Ortel said. “As power and connectivity conditions have improved over the last 24 hours, we have seen some improvement to wireless service in Lower Manhattan and other locations in the metropolitan area.”
Ortel noted that Verizon Wireless is working on keeping its network running as well as focusing on restoration. “We’re continuing to refuel permanent generators at cell sites until commercial power is restored, deploy additional portable generators as needed and where possible, and support customers by offering recharging services at open retail stores,” she said.
Turetsky said that the FCC was granting special temporary operational authority to groups that need them to help recover from the emergency, including to power companies from out of their normal areas that are helping local companies restore power and for broadcasters with what he called, “special needs.”
He also noted that the 911 system remained operational—something that didn’t happen during and after the derecho storm that caused widespread wind damage across the mid-Atlantic region in June 2012. A derecho is a type of storm that brings long-lasting straight line winds, and it is usually associated with a band of severe thunderstorms.
The significant improvement in operations was due to two factors. The first is that wireless carriers, wireline carriers and the FCC have continued to make improvements to the wireless networks. The FCC has both insisted that the companies make changes to improve reliability and made it easier for this to happen. In addition, the wireless companies have invested millions in infrastructure changes, including generators at cell sites and operations centers, relocation of critical switches to higher locations and improved procedures.
The National Weather Service also deserves kudos. The track of Hurricane Sandy was accurately predicted well in advance, and everyone, from customers to carriers, had time to prepare by stationing recovery teams and equipment in the right locations ready to move into action as soon as the wind died down.
Editor’s Note: This story was updated with revised information from Verizon Wireless about the percentage of its cell towers in operation from Maine to Virginia.