Your cell phone is more likely to work in a hurricane than an earthquake

@CNNMoneyTech August 26, 2011: 12:03 PM ET
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A specialist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami looks over forecasts as Hurricane Irene approaches the East Coast.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- In the battle of natural disasters affecting the East Coast this week, the powerful Hurricane Irene is less likely to disrupt cell phone service than Tuesday's relatively minor earthquake.

Cell service was extremely spotty from New England to Georgia on Tuesday following the 5.8-magnitude earthquake, as networks became saturated with mobile phone calls. That kind of mass calling event doesn't typically occur during a hurricane -- particularly a slow-moving one like Irene.

"In an earthquake, millions of people feel the same thing at once and all call their loved ones at the same time. Hurricanes don't have that effect," said Ken Rehbehn, principal analyst at Yankee Group.

Wireless infrastructure like switching stations and towers are designed to withstand winds from Category 5 hurricanes, the wireless carriers say. Irene is expected to be weaker than that, though still quite strong by the time it hits the coast.

East Coast braces for Hurricane Irene

Experts caution that every storm has unique characteristics, and hurricanes can temporarily disrupt service. Cell towers are connected to the Internet, and the signal piggybacks on land line service in many areas. That means downed wires can sometimes impact wireless service.

But wireless carriers build redundancy into their networks, so weather-related service losses usually don't last too long.

"Cell phone companies have backup resources like cells on trucks," Rehbehn said. "When issues happen, they get those deployed pretty quickly."

Verizon Wireless spokesman Jeff Nelson said the nation's largest wireless provider uses alternative stand-by power sources to keep service uninterrupted.

In anticipation of the hurricane, AT&T conducted inspections of its electric generators and prepared portable generators for back-up. The company also readied its mobile cell sites and emergency vehicles for deployment.

No such preparations could be made in advance of an earthquake, of course, though the carriers' infrastructure is designed to withstand quakes of higher magnitude than the one that hit the East Coast this week.

Their infrastructure wasn't damaged, and none of it failed as a result of the quake, according to Verizon (VZ, Fortune 500), AT&T (T, Fortune 500), Sprint (S, Fortune 500) and T-Mobile. The reason cell service went out was because of a bottlenecking factor: Like a highway that gets congested during rush hour, cellular infrastructure is not designed to handle the sudden traffic spike that occurs during emergency situations.

Congestion solution: More spectrum

Citing this week's earthquake as an example, the wireless industry is calling on the government to allocate more wireless spectrum.

"We need more lanes, or spectrum," said Steve Largent, president of the wireless industry association CTIA, in a blog post on Wednesday. "Otherwise, wireless consumers will experience a significant traffic jam. With more spectrum, we'd have more lanes that would allow more users."

The Federal Communications Commission has proposed auctioning off 500 MHz of spectrum to wireless companies. But the plan faces several hang-ups, including patches of local television broadcasters claiming rights to that spectrum.

As part of a bipartisan congressional proposal co-sponsored by Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Kay Bailey Hutchison, some of that spectrum would be auctioned off and a portion of the proceeds would be given to broadcasters as an incentive.

The pending bill also includes $12 billion and dedicated spectrum for the formation of a public emergency wireless network that would allow police and firefighters to communicate even when commercial wireless networks are overloaded.

Yet the bill is being held up as a possible bargaining chip in the looming debt ceiling super committee discussions.

Some politicians view the auction proposal as a way to increase government revenues without raising taxes. Some are proposing less funding for the emergency network -- which could impair its ability to get off the ground. To top of page

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