Cell networks struggle under Sandy

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With power out to more than 8 million people, phone service may continue to dwindle in affected areas as backup power drains from stranded cell towers.

Cellphone service providers may have been hit the hardest in Sandy's impact radius as 25 percent of cell towers are down in 10 affected states, CNET reports Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski saying during a press call the morning of Oct. 30. "The storm is not over. And our assumption is that communications outages could get worse before they get better, particularly for mobile networks because of the flooding and loss of power."

Before Hurricane Sandy hit, the FCC activated (.pdf) the Disaster Information Reporting System to monitor outages and coverage loss of phone, internet, and TV services along the East Coast. DIRS is a voluntary system for communications providers and broadcasters to report communications infrastructure problems and provide the FCC with a situational overview.

An FCC spokesperson confirmed that Genachowski spoke with various communication company CEOs on Oct. 29 about the DIRS reports and offered support from the agency, and said that much of the FCC's efforts will be to maintain 911 call centers.

A July storm in the mid-Atlantic caused disruptions across many 911 services and calls were likely missed or prevented by the issues.

While internet service providers reported roughly the same outage, landline phones were said to be much less effected across those states.

Federal officials and company crews are still assessing the extent of the damage and service outage. The concern is that this disruption may grow in areas where power is not restored. Even customers with service may lose it as cell tower batteries and backup systems run out juice and either power is not restored or crews can't access the sites to replace batteries or refuel generators.

With the more than 8 million homes already affected, it is likely that many will lose service in the coming days.

FCC will soon send agents out to analyze what frequencies are still in use and those that are offline. It will then work with state officials and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to prioritize the down signals and work to bring them back online.

Communications providers can report directly through DIRS, the FCC main webpage, or the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau website. FCC is asking for reports by 10 a.m. every day until the DIRS is deactivated.

For more:
- download the FCC's statement on DIRS (.pdf)
- read FCC and FEMA tips on contacting others during emergencies

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