Cellphone Companies Struggle to Reconnect Customers, Post-Sandy

Wednesday, 31 Oct 2012 02:31 PM

 

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Sandy, the Atlantic superstorm that ravaged the East Coast, knocked out cable or phone connections to more than 1 million customers in the New York area and weakened wireless service from Virginia to Massachusetts.

About one-fourth of mobile-service transmitters failed in an area stretching from the coast of the northeastern U.S., where Sandy came ashore on Oct. 29, to inland West Virginia, Federal Communications Commission officials said in Washington.

“This was and still is a devastating storm, with a substantial and serious impact on our country’s communications infrastructure,” FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said Tuesday on a conference call.

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Communications outages could grow as blackouts last longer than backup power supplies, and as snow and floods take their toll, Genachowski said. The FCC monitored outages in 158 counties in 10 states and the District of Columbia, and roughly 25 percent of cell sites in those localities were reported not to be working, David Turetsky, chief of the agency’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, said on the call.

New Yorkers went to great lengths to stay connected. At a Duane Reade pharmacy at 34th Street and Eighth Avenue, visitors unplugged the lights on a Christmas tree to recharge their mobile phones in the outlets. One man ducked into an unmanned Chase branch on 60th Street near Lexington Avenue to plug in a phone at the end of a line of ATMs.

Wi-Fi-equipped businesses, such as Starbucks cafes, served as an oasis for New Yorkers without power. At 73rd Street and Amsterdam Avenue, Columbia University grad student Jonathan Wiener was sitting on the ground outside a Starbucks on Tuesday, using the shop’s network to upload photos for a live blog of the storm.

“I had it until last night around midnight and it went out,” the 25-year-old said. “We still have certain channels of cable. It’s really random. And no Internet.”

Verizon Wireless, the largest U.S. mobile provider, contended with flooding in the lower end of Manhattan. The company has been pumping water out of its network system facilities and has brought in large portable generators to power the buildings in an effort to restore services, Jeffrey Nelson, a company spokesman, said in a statement.

Still, 94 percent of cell sites were running and call-switching and data centers were functioning normally, Verizon Wireless spokesman Torod Neptune said.

Verizon Communications, the majority owner of the wireless carrier, posted a picture showing the lobby of its headquarters building at 140 West Street in lower Manhattan awash in roiling water. Fiber and copper lines in the basement of the building were inundated, contributing to service outages, and employees who normally report to the building worked from other sites, Bill Kula, a Verizon Communications spokesman, said in an e-mail.

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It wasn’t known how many total customers were without either land-line voice, Internet or television service from the flooding, which also struck Verizon facilities in Queens and on Long Island, Kula said.

AT&T, the second-biggest carrier, was working through disruptions in hard-hit areas including New York City and New Jersey, where flooding, power loss, transportation and debris all pose challenges, according to a statement.

“You can assume this is a massive, 24/7 effort on our part,” Mark Siegel, an AT&T spokesman, said in an e-mail.

Sprint Nextel Corp. experienced service disruptions in the New York area, as well as parts of Pennsylvania and New England, said Crystal Davis, a spokeswoman for the third-largest U.S. mobile carrier.

“We are under some unusual constraints given the nature of the storm, the flooding and the difficulty gaining access to the sites,” said Davis in an interview.

T-Mobile USA’s network in Washington is more than 90 percent operational, while New York City is at more than 80 percent, the fourth-largest U.S. mobile carrier said in a statement.

“Restoration work continues in the harder-hit areas,” T-Mobile said.

In areas where there is no power, many cell tower sites are equipped with backup generators that have fuel to last between 48 hours and 72 hours, the mobile-phone companies said. In areas that are accessible, portable generators can be installed for another 48 hours of service.

About 1.8 million cable customers were left without cable service in metropolitan New York, Long Island and the lower Hudson Valley, James Denn, a spokesman for the New York State Public Service Commission, said in an e-mail today. About 36,000 customers lacked cable service in other New York localities, including Albany, Binghamton, Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse, he said.

Emergency calling services were “largely intact,” Denn said in an e-mail. Genachowski, the FCC chief, said “a very small number” of 911 emergency call centers weren’t working. He didn’t say where they were.

Sandy caused “widespread” service interruptions for customers of Cablevision Systems Corp., primarily due to power outages, said Jim Maiella, a spokesman for the cable company in Bethpage, N.Y.

At Philadelphia-based Comcast, the largest U.S. cable company, most service disruptions were tied to commercial power interruptions, said Jenni Moyer, a spokeswoman. Time Warner Cable had no significant damage to its network and expected to reconnect customers as power returned, said Alex Dudley, a spokesman for the New York-based company.

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The storm knocked out power to about 8 million homes and businesses in the Northeast, including about 2.5 million customers in New Jersey and 2 million in New York, according to the U.S. Energy Department.

The power went out for Ivan Smith, a lawyer who lives in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood, at about 9 p.m. on Oct. 29. His office near Wall Street, meanwhile, was flooded, he said.

“We’re down probably for the rest of the week,” he said. “My cellphone went down. People are texting me and calling me, and I can’t respond.”

© Copyright 2014 Bloomberg News. All rights reserved.

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