Wireless carriers say they're ready for Hurricane Florence

Generators have been topped off, portable cell towers are in position and dedicated public safety networks are ready to go.

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

Rain begins to fall as the outer bands of Hurricane Florence make landfall in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina on Sept. 13, 2018. 

Alex Edelman/AFP/Getty Images

With the largest hurricane of the season barreling toward the southeastern US, the nation's major wireless providers say their networks are ready.

Florence, downgraded on Thursday from a category 4 to category 2 storm, is already producing tropical strength winds and heavy rains along the North Carolina and South Carolina coasts. Officials from the National Hurricane Center say the strong winds are expected to reach up to 100 miles per hour, with storm surges as high as 12 feet. This combined with torrential rain, which could last into Saturday, make the monster storm a life-threatening event.

The nation's wireless providers say they've been preparing for the storm to keep their networks up and running for both their consumers and first responders, who also depend on their wireless networks. From deploying mobile cell sites to sandbagging and topping up backup generators, the carriers say they'll do their best to ensure the phone networks stay up.

Watch this: Apps to help with disaster preparation

It's increasingly critical that cell service works during times of disaster. Fewer people have landlines, and they rely on a smartphone for many things beyond a simple phone call. When disaster strikes, people turn to their phones to call for help, reach loved ones and get vital information.

As a result, wireless carriers have taken seriously the need to ensure the reliability of their networks. This year's preparation and effort to ensure the networks remain operational come after the devastating 2017 hurricane season in the US, in which three back-to-back storms wreaked havoc in Houston and the Gulf coast of Texas, as well as, parts of southern Florida and the Caribbean, including the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico . In many of these areas, especially in hard hit Puerto Rico, recovery efforts are still ongoing.

Wireless providers say it's hard to predict how badly their networks will be affected in the aftermath of Florence. But they say they're prepared.

"I don't have a magic crystal ball to predict the future," said Karen Schultz, spokeswoman for Verizon . "But I can tell you that we maintained 98 percent reliability during Hurricane Harvey and 90 percent of our network remained up in Florida during Irma."

She added that after each of those storms, service was fully restored within days, allowing people in those regions to start rebuilding and communicating.

While much of the communications infrastructure along the coast is already built to withstand Category 4 and 5 hurricanes, the biggest threat from Florence will be from the surging ocean and the flooding of rivers and creeks from heavy rains. The storm is expected to move slowly up the coast, dumping heavy amounts of rain that measure not in inches but in feet. The storm surge is also expected to be between 6 to 12 feet high. The National Hurricane Center has been airing a video simulation that shows what that could look like.

Preparations in place

All the major carriers say they've been staging network assets throughout the region in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Georgia so they can quickly deploy gear after the storm hits. This includes deploying  "cell on wheels" and "cell on light trucks," as well as manning dedicated storm command centers. And because commercial outages are the biggest threat to the operation of cell sites, carriers have also prepositioned fuel trucks for refueling generators to power cell towers.

AT&T and Verizon said they also plan to use drones , which can inspect cell towers and facilities, making restoration quicker and more efficient.

AT&T's two main traditional television services, U-Verse and DirecTV, have added channels dedicated to storm coverage from local affiliates in the affected areas as well as national networks.

All four major carriers -- AT&T, Sprint , T-Mobile and Verizon -- are offering free calling, texting and data to postpaid and prepaid customers who aren't already on unlimited plans in areas in the direct path of the storm.

AT&T and Verizon also emphasized their commitments to serving their first responder customers. Both companies have carved out dedicated network assets to handle calls and mobile data from public safety agencies.

AT&T's FirstNet public safety network, which just went live in recent months, uses dedicated wireless spectrum that first responders use during disasters to get priority access. This means the FirstNet network will allow emergency service workers to communicate regardless of how congested or clogged AT&T's consumer network may become during or after the storm.

Verizon offers a similar service over a so-called "dedicated core network."

Both carriers say first responders will have truly unlimited access to their data networks. Verizon, specifically, said it will upgrade first responders in several states so that they're not affected by network data usage limits. This comes a month after the company was accused of throttling or slowing down service by the Santa Clara Fire Department in California that was fighting the major Mendocino wildfire. Verizon apologized for the incident, calling it a customer support error.

AT&T took the opportunity to slam Verizon.

"Only lifting [data speed] limitations for first responders in a few states is a half-hearted gesture that does nothing for the thousands of first responders who will travel long miles to help those affect," AT&T said in a statement Wednesday. "That's why FirstNet does not throttle subscribers anywhere in the country. Period."

Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates wireless carriers, said it has also been preparing for the hurricane. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement Wednesday that the agency has been coordinating with federal and state partners to assist in the recovery effort.

"We will closely monitor communications outages data in the coming days and work to support restoration and recovery efforts," Pai said.

The agency also urged residents to "charge their wireless phones, laptops , or tablets , sign up to receive emergency alerts and warnings, and follow other communications tips available on the FCC's website to stay connected with family and friends."

For more information on how to prepare for hurricanes and other disasters, check out these tips.

18 tips to prepare for a natural disaster

See all photos

Taking It to Extremes: Mix insane situations -- erupting volcanoes, nuclear meltdowns, 30-foot waves -- with everyday tech. Here's what happens.

Special Reports: All of CNET's most in-depth features in one easy spot.