FCC says wireless service is improving after Sandy

Federal officials say they are seeing some improvement in the communications network after Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast on Monday night, devastating several states.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
3 min read
AT&T wireless customers in downtown Manhattan find the one spot in their neighborhood with a cell phone signal. CNET/Dan Ackerman

Federal Communications Commission officials said today that wireless and wireline communications services have improved following Hurricane Sandy.

"Overall, the condition of our communications networks is improving," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in a statement. "But serious outages remain, particularly in New York, New Jersey, and other hard-hit areas."

The storm, which is affecting several states on the East Coast from Virginia to Maine and westward as far as Michigan, has wreaked havoc on the communications network. Yesterday, officials said that they expected service to degrade before it got better. But today the agency said it's seeing signs of improvement that are encouraging.

Yesterday, 25 percent of wireless cell sites had been affected. And 25 percent of cable customers were without service. Today, David Teretsky, FCC Public Safety & Homeland Security Bureau Chief, told reporters on a conference call that the percentage of cell sites that were not functioning improved by a "few percentage points" compared to yesterday.

He wouldn't get much more specific than that, but said the improvements were roughly 3 to 4 percentage points better than yesterday when wireless operators had reported outages in 158 counties in 10 states. He also said that cable service outages had improved significantly compared to Tuesday with outages now at less than 20 percent.

"Water and power remain a problem in many areas," he said on the call "But that's improving, which is helping with service restoration."

Turetsky said that wireless operators have been trucking in additional generators to cell sites without power. And they are also rolling in cellular towers on wheels or what the industry calls COWS to help restore service. He also mentioned that AT&T and T-Mobile USA have struck a roaming agreement that will allow the companies' customers to roam onto each other's networks when service and capacity are available.

This measure should improve service for customers of those services.

Meanwhile, Verizon Wireless reiterated that 94 percent of its cell sites are functional. And the company's wireline business said it's making progress at technical sites in Lower Manhattan, Queens, and Long Island.

"In these locations, Verizon has been able to reroute and restore critical services at several key facilities that were affected by the historic flooding and subsequent power outages on Monday night," the company said in a statement.

The company said it's been pumping facilities that were flooded, but that its critical voice switches, data equipment and routers are located on high floors in buildings, so they were not damaged by floodwater. But the water did damage some of backup power equipment such as switch gear, generators and fuel pumps, causing some repair delays.

These outages have likely contributed to some of the problems that wireless operators have been experiencing downtown. The FCC's Turetsky explained how some of the problems that wireless customers are facing are due to the fact that main communications switching centers have been affected along with individual cell sites.

Verizon seems confident with the strength of its wireless service. A representative said that the company's network has performed well through the crisis. The company erected a temporary wireless antenna in Jersey City, across the Hudson River from the World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan, to support services for its major financial customers based in Northern New Jersey. The company said its wireless network is "a terrific backup to wireline networks, and many financial service customers are using wireless as a major component of their business continuity planning."

Cable operators have also made strides in getting their networks restored. Time Warner Cable, which serves parts of New York City and the surrounding region said that 98 percent of its crews are in full force in Brooklyn and Queens to restore service. But the company said that it must wait until Con Edison, the local power company, has finished restoring power before the company's workers can safely get access to areas that have been affected.