Nothing puts a wireless network to the test like an unpredictable catastrophic event. So, can Verizon Wireless, the network that calls itself "the nation's most reliable," still make that boast?
With cell towers down across the East Coast and repair crews scrambling in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, widespread difficulties were reported this week on all carriers.
But according to some reports, Verizon, the top U.S. carrier by subscribers, held up well. The Wall Street Journal reported that AT&T's service was spotty in Lower Manhattan Wednesday and Thursday, with Verizon Wireless service somewhat better. Sprint and T-Mobile signals were elusive, East Village residents told the paper.
One of our reporters on New York's Long Island, however, has seen numerous dropped calls on his Verizon smartphone since the storm, with coverage shifting from 3G to the much slower 1X, and e-mailed messages have gone undelivered.
In a statement, Verizon spokesman Tom Pica said on Thursday, "In terms of our network, we have seen continued improvement overnight with now more than 96 percent of our cell sites in service and serving our customers in the impacted area, including some of the hardest hit areas of the Northeast."
In a statement from AT&T, Northeast Regional President Steve Hodges said: "Our goal here is to help people stay connected to family and loved ones in the aftermath of this terrible storm. Meanwhile, we're also making great progress in restoring our wireless and wireline networks across the region."
T-Mobile's Web site offered more specific data: "We're happy to report that network restoration in NYC is now at 85 percent, overall. Within the borough of Staten Island, T-Mobile network availability has improved to 80%. The agreement between T-Mobile with AT&T to share networks in NY and NJ is already providing customers of both AT&T and T-Mobile improved experiences in the hardest-hit areas."
Sprint reported Friday: "Significant progress has also been made for customers in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, where the Sprint Network is more than 90 percent operational.
"In New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, our network is more than 80 percent operational, but challenges remain for the hardest hit areas of these states, including metropolitan New York City and portions of the New Jersey coast. In New York City, for example, approximately three-quarters of the network is operational, but challenges remain in obtaining commercial power, backhaul connections, and gaining safe access to cell sites."
Cooperation Is Key
Weston Henderik, principal analyst of consumer services at Current Analysis, said that while the struggles are apparent, one positive aspect of the fallout was cooperation by AT&T and T-Mobile to share networks for seamless roaming for their customers. (AT&T tried unsuccessfully to acquire T-Mobile last year.)
"This cooperation increases the odds that customers will get their calls through and helps minimize disruptions," Henderik said. "As a result, I think we could see more cooperation like this in future disasters."
What else can carriers learn from the disaster?
"You can never be too well prepared," Henderik said, "especially considering weather patterns in recent years that are showing an increase in large storms."