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Hurricane Sandy's Fury Tests Wireless Networks

Hurricane Sandy
October 29, 2012 4:23PM

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"There will be outages mostly due to power and backhaul terminations," said analyst Ken Dulaney. "We have to decide as a society whether wireless telephony is mission critical. And as a result we need legislation that puts the cell towers and electronics above the flood plain, install battery backup and generators and use wireless backhaul as an option."

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As a storm that may turn out to be the most devastating in history moved along the East Coast -- with winds up to 85 mph and storm surges as high as 12 feet -- power companies, utilities and wireless carriers were working overtime to keep their services going.

But for wireless carriers, it may turn out to be somewhat uncharted territory since major consumer wireless networks have only been around for about 20 years, during which time there has not been a tropical storm in the area this severe, and networks are increasingly complex.

Minimizing Damage

"Telecoms, wireless and wireline alike, say they will work overtime to minimize the damage and speed repairs from Hurricane Sandy," said the CTIA, the International Association for the Wireless Telecommunications Agency, in a statement on its Web site Monday.

"Among the steps carriers are taking: prepping generators and making sure they have full fuel tanks; keeping extra gas on hand for vehicles; and testing emergency equipment for managing network operations. Wireless carriers also offered consumers tips on how to use their handsets during the storm."

In response to our inquiry, AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel said the company had invested heavily in preparation for disasters like Sandy.

"With an arsenal of disaster response equipment and personnel on standby as Hurricane Sandy nears, AT&T is ready to respond quickly," he told us.

"Since 1991, AT&T has invested more than $600 million in our Network Disaster Recovery function -- one of the industry's largest and most advanced disaster response programs -- to help ensure the flow of wireless and wireline communications during emergencies. The NDR arsenal of equipment includes more than 320 technology and equipment trailers that can be quickly deployed to respond to events, such as hurricanes."

In its statement, Verizon Wireless said its "wireline and wireless business units have activated national and regional command and control centers, enabling Verizon operations teams to monitor the storm's progress and company operations, including network performance. Verizon has established communications with power and other service providers to ensure proper coordination in the event of storm damage."

Still, no one can predict how bad any outage would be because the storm's path varied.

Backhaul Issues

"There will be outages mostly due to power and backhaul terminations," said Ken Dulaney, a wireless analyst at Gartner Research. "We have to decide as a society whether wireless telephony is mission critical. And as a result we need legislation that puts the cell towers and electronics above the flood plain, install battery backup and generators and use wireless backhaul as an option."

Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT, said the storm may prove to be an "acid test" for wireless technology.

"Along with disaster management, lessons in disaster recovery may be particularly painful," he said. "For years now people have been abandoning traditional landline phones with the argument that mobile phones should be just as resilient in major disasters. The coming storm is likely to prove just how accurate (or not) those predictions have been."

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