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Hurricane Irene to challenge cell phone networks

People up and down the East Coast may well wonder as the big storm approaches if they should count on their cell phones when they may need them the most.

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
5 min read
An infrared satellite image from the National Weather Service shows Hurricane Irene off the coast of Florida Aug. 25, 2011.
An infrared satellite image from the National Weather Service shows Hurricane Irene off the coast of Florida on August 25, 2011. NOAA/National Weather Service

As Hurricane Irene barrels toward the East Coast, cell phone subscribers from North Carolina to Maine are wondering how well their cell phone service will hold up during what's expected to be a long, wet, and windy weekend.

The category 3 hurricane, which was still over the Bahamas on Thursday afternoon, is expected to make landfall in North Carolina sometime Saturday with winds likely around 115 mph. The storm is then anticipated to make its way up the coasts of North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts.

Governors in several states have already declared states of emergency in anticipation. And residents along the Eastern Seaboard are being told to prepare for the worst.

Related links:
Storm tracker apps for iOS, Android
CBSNews.com: Irene could cripple East Coast power supply
Cell service jammed after East Coast earthquake

With more than 96 percent of the U.S. population owning cell phones and about a quarter of households with only cell phones for telecommunications, the question of how well the wireless network will hold up has become a big concern.

If Tuesday's surprise earthquake in Virginia is any indication of whether people should count on their cell phones, the answer is likely no. In fact, Craig Fugate, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, warned during an interview yesterday with CNN that people should turn to local TV broadcasters for information as cell phone networks are expected to jammed.

"With heavy congestion, you may not be able get through," he said.

Wireless operators get ready
The major wireless operators in the U.S., AT&T, Sprint Nextel, and Verizon Wireless, all say they have been preparing for the storm to make sure that service is available. They've put additional power generators near cell phone towers and made sure those sites were stocked with plenty of fuel in case commercial power goes out. They also have cell sites on wheels ready to deploy in places where towers may be damaged.

And indeed damage does occur from wind and flooding. During Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Federal Communications Commission reported that more than a thousand cell sites went down during the storm across several states along the Gulf Coast. Cell towers are particularly vulnerable to high winds and rain because the equipment is housed outside on towers.

Still, wireless operators have spent millions of dollars to ensure their networks can withstand whatever Mother Nature sends its way.

"Wireless communication is critical before, during, and after hurricanes and other weather-related emergencies," Nancy Clark, Northeast president for Verizon Wireless, said in a statement. Verizon Wireless is the largest wireless operator in the U.S. "Preparation is key to staying safe. We have years of experience of planning for and maintaining service during severe weather and are very proud of how our employees and network have performed in meeting these challenges."

But even if the network itself is able to withstand the force of a hurricane, network service is still likely to be disrupted due to network congestion. Tuesday's East Coast earthquake was the latest example of a scenario that has played out time and again in recent years after a major disaster. Even though no physical damage was reported to the actual network infrastructure, thousands of cell phone users from Washington, D.C. to New York City were unable to make phone calls.

Blame it on congestion
Steve Largent, head of The CTIA Wireless Association, which lobbies lawmakers on behalf of the wireless industry, defended wireless carriers' performance following the East Coast earthquake. He said that wireless networks worked.

"Contrary to some reports of 'outages,' wireless networks processed the huge surge of communications attempts across the nation at rates massively higher than normal," he said in a statement.

Still, he admitted that some customers experienced delays as a result of network congestion. But he said that with additional wireless spectrum, mobile operators can build out capacity to better deal with "massive calling events" in the future.

But call failures due to overloaded wireless networks have become almost a given during a crisis in recent years. Following the terrorist attacks in London and New York City, during and after Hurricane Katrina, and while students were being massacred on the Virginia Tech campus, the phone networks were so jammed that people who needed help could not make the necessary phone calls.

And the reason is simple. The networks don't have enough capacity to handle the surge in call volume. Cellular networks are designed to handle a certain amount of calls in each cell or region with operators building networks to serve the average usage volume.

The problem occurs when a disaster hits and thousands of people all at once either call 911 for help or dial loved ones. There simply isn't enough capacity in the network to allow everyone in a cell site to make a phone call at the same time.

While more spectrum could help, it's unclear if it would ever be cost-effective for wireless operators to configure their networks to withstand the highest demand for network resources.

"Communications networks in general, regardless of whether they are wireless or wireline, have a finite amount of capacity," Charles Golvin, an analyst with Forrester Research, said in an interview following the collapse of the the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis in 2007. "And for example, there have been many times in California, during an earthquake, when the regular phone network is tied up."

Experts recommend that subscribers avoid making phone calls during or following a crisis to ensure that people seeking help can contact emergency personnel. Instead, they recommend people send short text messages, e-mails or messages via social networking sites, such as Twitter and Facebook. Text messages can get through the cellular network more easily than a phone call which requires a persistent connection, because text messages only require a small portion of network resources. And if the network is too congested, the network will continue to try sending the message until it's delivered.

In addition to these recommendations, wireless operators have been offering the public tips for what to do before and after this weekend's expected hurricane to ensure the networks work optimally and to help people in a crisis. Below is a summary of those tips:

Before the storm:

  • Keep phones, batteries, chargers and other equipment in a dry, accessible location. Consider waterproof accessories or simple zip-lock storage bags to protect devices.
  • Keep wireless phone batteries fully charged--in case local power is lost--well before warnings are issued.
  • Have additional charged batteries and car-charger adapters available for backup power.
  • Program a list of emergency numbers--police and fire agencies; power and insurance companies; family, friends and co-workers; etc.--into your cell phone.
  • Distribute wireless phone numbers to family members and friends.
  • Download weather and safety-related apps for smartphones, tablets and other devices.
  • Use a service to back up and store your phone's address book on a secure server in case the phone is lost or damaged.
  • Document storm damage using a camera.
  • Take advantage of location-based mapping technology to help find evacuation routes.

During the storm:

  • Limit non-emergency calls to conserve battery power and free up wireless networks for emergency agencies and operations.
  • Send brief text messages rather than voice calls for the same reasons as above.
  • Communicate and update friends and family via social networking sites, such as Twitter and Facebook.
  • Forward your home phone calls to your wireless number if you evacuate.
  • Check weather and news reports on wireless phone applications when power is out.