At the end of October, Superstorm Sandy knocked out towers and power causing widespread misery and and eventually leading to the announcement of field hearings by the FCC aimed at increasing cell tower resiliency in the face of natural and man-made disasters. On Tuesday, Oct. 30, the FCC reported that 25 percent of all cell sites were offline in the core area affected by the storm — 158 counties across 10 states, from Virginia to Massachusetts.
In advance of the snow storm that followed Sandy, AT&T was fortifying fuel distribution to more than 3,000 generators positioned at cell sites and other key locations.
By the end of that week, the numbers of cell towers knocked offline by Hurricane Sandy had dropped a few percentage points, according to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski in a phone briefing, as tower crews continue battling flood waters and massive power outages.
“Overall, we’re seeing both continued improvement in communications networks and also that much work remains to be done to restore service fully,” Chairman Genachowski said in a prepared release. “The supply of fuel to generators is essential to keep communications service up and running, and we’re working with federal, state, and local authorities to speed fuel delivery. This is a priority because our commercial communications networks are essential to emergency response and recovery efforts, as well as to commercial activities and connecting with family.”
“Based on data from 10 a.m. this morning [Thursday, Nov. 1], the number of cell site outages overall has declined from approximately 25 percent to 19 percent,” FCC Public Safety & Homeland Security Bureau Chief David Turetsky said in a prepared release. “This figure includes many cases where cell sites that are otherwise operational are effectively inoperable because of outages in other parts of the communications infrastructure, which is highly interdependent. With regards to cable services, it appears that outages have declined to approximately 12 – 14 percent, from initial outages estimates of 25 percent.”
NBC reported that 6.6 million homes and business are without power in New York City and New Jersey, meaning a lot of cell towers are on backup power.
Separately, T-Mobile reported progress in restoring network service to areas in the path of devastation from Superstorm Sandy, with network technicians are working to restore service by deploying generators to cell sites where power outages continue and to repair damage caused by high winds and flooding.
Restoration work continues, however, in the harder hit areas of lower Manhattan, Staten Island, Long Island, coastal and Northern New Jersey, Connecticut and portions of Pennsylvania, including Philadelphia. Raging flood waters that knocked out several waste water treatment plants and darken a hospital also played havoc with cell service in Brooklyn. T-Mobile is working closely with the NYC Department of Emergency Management and with FEMA to gain safe access to areas of the City where storm damage was extensive, including parts of Staten Island and lower Manhattan.
“We’re happy to report that network restoration in NYC is now at 85 percent and Staten Island has improved to 80 percent. The agreement between T-Mobile with AT&T to share networks in New York City and New Jersey is already providing customers of both AT&T and T-Mobile improved experiences in the hardest hit areas,” according to a prepared statement by a T-Mobile spokesman on Nov. 1. “All wireless networks are dependent on an ecosystem that includes many technologies. Services from public utilities, wireline transport and backhaul providers are critical components for wireless services and all have suffered storm related outages. We continue to work with these utilities to find solutions, particularly in lower Manhattan. T-Mobile is also looking at a variety of alternatives steps to solve these challenges.”
As of Friday morning, Nov. 2, Verizon Wireless reported that it had 97.2 percent of our cell sites in service in the impacted area of Hurricane Sandy, with coverage in most areas is approaching pre-storm status. Back-up power equipment, including permanent and mobile generators, is keeping cell sites and other network elements operating.
“In severely impacted areas, such as Lower Manhattan, while wireless service has yet to return to normal levels, coverage is good,” the company said in a prepared release. “We also continue to deploy mobile disaster recovery and emergency network assets to fortify our network.
While flooding continued to be a factor, the carrier expected the numbers of operational cell sites to continue to improve.
Mobile assets staged and supporting public safety
Verizon Wireless has staged or deployed a dozen mobile assets including self-contained inflatable shelters, generator trailers, and mobile office trailers complete with fully operation work stations in support of state and local emergency management operations.
“But in any and all of these cases, our field technicians are currently working closely with their customer counterparts to get wireless service back up and running for everyone, everywhere that power outages have been experienced,” Taiclet said.
Carriers Prepared for Sandy
In preparation for Hurricane Sandy, T-Mobile established regional staging areas and network command centers throughout the Eastern Seaboard, and especially in the areas of potential landfall or severe impact, including the mid-Atlantic states of Virginia, Maryland and Delaware; Washington D.C., Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and areas north including Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.
“T-Mobile rapid response engineering teams have staged equipment throughout the area’s most severely impacted and continue to make assessments regarding how quickly we may be able to begin restoration, and where it is needed most,” the company said in a web posting. “T-Mobile has made significant investments throughout the year in supplemental cell site backup generators, microwave technology equipment and cell-on-wheels (COWs), along with other tools and equipment to enhance the stability and, when necessary, the recovery of our network operations.”
In advance of the storm, AT&T also staged emergency response equipment in strategic locations to help speed recovery from disruptions in service, according to a customer letter by Steven Hodges, regional president—northeast, AT&T Mobility.
“While these efforts have helped us restore service to the vast majority of our cell sites in the Northeast, we are still working through some issues in the most heavily impacted areas,” Hodges wrote.
FCC officials feared that more cell towers would go offline as backup generators ran out of fuel. But that does not appear to be the case just yet perhaps because final preparations by carriers included bringing in additional fuel for generators and company vehicles for the use in network recovery and other emergency circumstances.
“Backup generators and fuel tanks for regional network switch operations are being put in place and tested, and fuel is being topped off for all generators in the potential path of Hurricane Sandy,” according T-Mobile.
Equipment was also deployed to facilitate back-haul from the cell sites to T-Mobile’s network switches in the event that a fixed-line service was to fail.
FCC Activates Disaster Information Reporting System
The cell tower outage number came from the Disaster Information Reporting System (DIRS), activated by the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau (PSHSB) in response to Hurricane Sandy. DIRS is a voluntary, web-based system that communications providers, including wireless, wireline, broadcast, cable and VOIP providers, can use to report communications infrastructure status during times of crisis in an area designated by the FCC.
“Our Disaster Information Reporting System remains activated and we continue to collect data from communications companies about the impacts of the storm,” Turetsky said. “As of 10 a.m. this morning [Nov. 1], our assessment indicates steady improvements in wireline and wireless communications networks throughout the affected area. However, restoration efforts in the hardest hit areas – including New York and New Jersey – continues to be more difficult. Replenishing fuel supplies for generators that are enabling communications networks to continue operating is a particularly critical challenge.”
On DIRS, if a communications providers has system in the designated crisis area it can submit information regarding the status of their communications equipment, restoration efforts, power source and access to fuel.