When an earthquake rattled the East Coast on Tuesday, some wireless networks were quickly overwhelmed with traffic. That led to speculation that communications systems could go down as the hurricane’s high winds and water pummeled cell towers, phone lines, and other systems.
But late Sunday afternoon Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski said most networks had weathered the storm well.
“Based on reports to date, there have been some wireline and wireless outages,” he said in a statement. “The good news, based on these initial reports, is that there hasn't been major damage to our communications infrastructure, except for damage along coastal regions hit hard by the storm.”
As of Sunday afternoon, 1,398 cell sites were not operating, 1,093 cell sites were using backup power sources, 130,000 wirelines were down, and 500,000 cable subscribers couldn't get service, according to the FCC.
On Monday the agency was still assessing the extent of reported outages. But the FCC reported that no 911 centers were without service as of Sunday and there had been no reports of public safety communications outages.
Verizon spokesman Tom Pica attributed the limited impact to the company’s preparation before Hurricane Irene made landfall.
“Our ability to anticipate, prepare well in advance, and respond quickly to this storm has enabled us to keep our customers connected when they need their wireless service most,” he said on Monday. Pica said some cell sites are operating on backup generators after communities lost power.
“The Verizon Wireless network continues to perform well all along the East Coast, including in the many affected communities in the path of the storm,” he said. Another Verizon spokesman confirmed some damage to poles and wires, but said overall the system “held up well.”
AT&T reported that some of its networks were damaged in the storm, with some power outages as well. As of Monday morning, technicians were assessing the damage and beginning the repair process, said AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel.
“We are very pleased with how our network has performed given the size of Hurricane Irene,” he said.
In some of the hardest-hit areas along the coast, Sprint had some network disruptions because of power outages and damage to wireline infrastructure, said company spokeswoman Crystal Davis.
“While there are impediments due to excessive flooding, and downed trees and power lines, Sprint technicians have been working aggressively since Sunday to restore service to the impacted sites by refueling generators, clearing debris and making repairs,” she said.
Other communication companies, including Cox, also reported service outages, mostly due to loss of power.
Once again, television and radio broadcasters trumpeted the fact that their outlets were largely unaffected.
"While cellphone, electricity and cable system outages were occurring up and down the East Coast, broadcasters were a trusted resource that millions of Americans relied upon for accurate information," Gordon Smith, president of the National Association of Broadcasters, said in a statement.
Wireless communication is essential for emergency responders, and many companies, including Inmarsat and the startup company LightSquared, said they are working to make sure officials have the service they need.
Top lawmakers on the Senate Commerce Committee asked the FCC to do more to secure communications systems during emergencies.
“Despite being six years from the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina and 10 years from the tragic events of 9/11, we still do not have an interoperable wireless broadband network for public safety,” committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and ranking member Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, wrote in a letter to Genachowski on Friday. “We must not allow any more potentially life-threatening disasters to occur before our nation’s first responders get the interoperable public safety communications system they need to keep us safe.”