Sandy exposes vulnerability of cell networks

Prolonged outages leave those without landline service disconnected

Americans in growing numbers have been canceling their landline phones and going all-wireless in recent years, but the move does not come without risk, as super storm Sandy demonstrated in stark relief. The storm caused widespread cellular outages, and some carriers are taking heat for not restoring service soon enough, reported Anton Troianovski and Sarah Portlock at the Wall Street Journal.

Since Hurricane Katrina, there has been an ongoing debate between regulators and telecom carriers over regulations to ensure that networks hold up in emergency conditions. Carriers have been successful at beating regulations down, including an initiative to require backup batteries at cellphone towers, Troianovski and Portlock point out.

Three days after Sandy hit Manhattan, it was still hard to get a cell signal on networks run by AT&T (NYSE: T), Sprint Nextel (NYSE: S) and T-Mobile, the reporters found. Carriers provided little information that could be used to compare the various networks' performance, however. By Thursday morning, nearly one-fifth of the cell sites in the storm's path were still down, according the Federal Communications Commission. One of the biggest challenges was refueling backup generators.

The landline infrastructure that links wireless transmitters to the telecom network took a big hit during the storm, according John Donovan, technology chief at AT&T. Massive flooding not only caused power outages but also hobbled backup generators. The carriers' fiber infrastructure has shown its vulnerability in Sandy's wake. Back when calls were made over copper wire, people could still use their phones when the power went out, consumer advocates note.

For more:
- see Troianovski and Portlock's article at the Wall Street Journal

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