Carriers and Cell Coverage Stay Strong Through Hurricane Matthew

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As Hurricane Matthew veers off in the Atlantic leaving behind only sporadic reports of cell phone outages, its impact on the telecom community and how it plans emergency responses will stick around.

Reports from Florida by TCPalm.com said the areas near West Palm Beach serviced by ITS Telecom utility remained in service throughout the storm because its network is underground. The system relied on backup batteries and generators to keep it running despite power outages.

In South Carolina on Saturday cell service was reportedly down in Kiawah and on Seabrook and Pawley’s Island. The islands were also rendered inaccessible to emergency crews.

Having been battered in year’s past by similar storms, East Coast officials are monitoring responses and actions by the carriers.

“After Sandy hit, far too many impacted residents struggled to get service because far too many cell towers were rendered inoperable,” Senator Charles Schumer (NY) said at a recent conference last year. “In an age where many people only have cell phones, the bottom line is we must fix that problem ASAP.” 

After Hurricane Katrina, the wireless industry fought off regulations requiring longer-lasting battery power. But cell phones and the industry that supports them have made great strides since then.

“We are more prepared now for the next storm,” Dave Miller, spokesman for C Spire Wireless told the Sun Herald. Cell phone providers say they learned from Katrina and invested millions in infrastructure to keep the phones ringing and restore service more quickly in hard-hit areas.

Today, carriers feel confident their towers have adequate backup power and requiring more would be of little use if towers or lines connecting them to the network are damaged in a hurricane.

Following Hurricane Sandy, the FCC proposed that carriers be required to publicly disclose how many of their towers stop working after storms and “shame companies into beefing up their infrastructure,” said Howard Feld, senior vice president at Public Knowledge, a public interest group.

AT&T said it was ready for Hurricane Matthew with an arsenal of disaster response equipment and personnel on standby. The carrier announced it had topped-off fuel at generators positioned at cell sites, installed and tested high-capacity back-up batteries at cell sites and installed “Quick Connect Generator Plugs” near cell sites. It also staged other emergency response equipment in strategic locations. Its national reliability center monitored outages for quick action.

The AT&T National Disaster Recovery (NDR) program is one of the industry’s largest and most advanced disaster response programs. It includes more than 320 technology and equipment trailers that can be quickly deployed to respond to disasters. The NDR team works with local AT&T network personnel, regional emergency operations centers and local response centers to keep service going until permanent repairs are made.

T-Mobile deployed backup generators, Cell-On-Wheels (COW), and fuel tanks while setting up engineering Command Centers in the areas of impact. In addition, T-Mobile’s geo-redundant Network Operation Centers (NOCs) sought to manage network traffic and coordinate any response needed according to a company spokesperson.

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