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Some cell service out after hurricane; operators begin cleanup

Mon, 08/29/2011 - 8:00am
Maisie Ramsay, Wireless Week

Wireless operators on the East Coast are working to restore cell service in the wake of Hurricane Irene, which knocked out towers in North Carolina and southern Virginia but left other areas on the eastern seaboard largely unscathed.

The FCC told The Associated Press that between 50 percent and 90 percent of cell towers went out of service in North Carolina's Lenoir, Greene and Carteret counties. About 400 cell towers in North Carolina and Virginia were affected by the storm, mainly due to power outages. Half of those towers were back online by Saturday night, using backup batteries and generators for power.

However, disruptions in wireless service were minimal in many areas affected by the hurricane, which was downgraded to a tropical storm as it hit the New York metropolitan area on Sunday.

"Based on reports to date, there have been some wireline and wireless outages," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said. "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."

Just 1 percent of cell towers in New York City were affected by the storm, FCC public safety chief Rear Adm. Jamie Barnett told The Associated Press.

Verizon Wireless said its network "continues to perform well" across the East Coast, with some cell sites operating on emergency backup generators.

"Some cell sites in communities that have lost commercial power are operating on our own emergency backup generators to help us continue providing wireless service to our customers," said a company spokesman.

The "vast majority" of Verizon's retail stores will be open today.

Sprint said in a statement posted to its website yesterday that customers in the District of Columbia and 11 East Coast states from Maine to Virginia "may be experiencing a temporary disruption in their wireless service."

"Generally speaking, Sprint's wireless networks performed well; however, we have experienced some disruption in service in the hardest-hit areas along the East Coast as a result of the loss of commercial power and local wireline service," a company spokesman said. "While there are some 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."

An AT&T spokesman said the company was seeing "some impact" from power outages and equipment damage.

"We are very pleased with how our network has performed given the size of Hurricane Irene," he said. "We are seeing some impact from loss of commercial power and equipment damage, but technicians are now in the field assessing damage and beginning the restoration process."

AT&T has already begun restoration work in North Carolina, Virginia, Washington, D.C., Delaware, Maryland and New Jersey, according to a statement on its official Twitter account.

T-Mobile USA said yesterday that its network was "85 percent operational" throughout the Northeast and that it was rolling in emergency generators to deal with power outages. The company has also restored service to more than 97 percent of its cell sites in North Carolina.

T-Mobile said its Virginia and Washington, D.C., markets were "experiencing the highest impact" due to widespread power outages.

The damage to wireless networks from Hurricane Irene is minimal compared with the impact of Hurricane Katrina, which is estimated to have knocked out more than a thousand cell sites when it slammed into states along the Gulf Coast in 2005.

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