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East Coast Wireless Networks Worked, Despite “Unthinkable” Devastation

There is no doubt that the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy – in the metro New York City and New Jersey coastal areas and elsewhere – was of near-Biblical proportions. As New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg put it: “Make no mistake about it, this is a devastating storm … Maybe the worst we have experienced.”  New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said that the wreckage from Sandy was “beyond anything I thought I'd ever see.” Adding, “The level of devastation at the Jersey Shore is unthinkable,” according to CNN.

The country watched in horror as neighborhoods were destroyed by fire in Queens, NY or evacuated. Sandy left a trail of destruction throughout the mid-Atlantic and Northeast, with historic flooding in New York and New Jersey and severe snowstorms in Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland. Never before in recent history have such densely concentrated U.S. population centers seen this degree of damage and disruption.

Yet in areas where equipment has been under whole stories of water, without access to fuel, wireless networks have continued to provide service. This quick restoration of service came from carriers’ swift implementation of disaster recovery plans. Carriers rapidly deployed generators and equipment, and relocated engineers and technicians from around the nation, to restore service as quickly as possible.

Wireless networks depend on critical services from electric utilities, wireline transport and backhaul providers and all have suffered tremendous storm-related outages. Yet despite the unprecedented damage, only one-quarter of cell sites were knocked off‑line and those numbers quickly dropped as numerous cell sites quickly came back in service. Indeed, many carriers’ networks are close to full restoration. It is important to note that not all cell sites are the same.  Wireless networks are designed with many hardened critical sites that will preserve coverage after a disaster has knocked secondary or capacity sites out of service.

In a situation such as Hurricane Sandy, where commercial power is lost for 4–8 days, rather than hours, a mandated 8-hour backup power rule would not have been a panacea. In spite of having backup power solutions, carriers faced issues with loss of switching facilities, access to fuel and loss of backhaul service. Yet carriers were able to keep cell sites in impacted areas operating on generators, spurring wireless consumers to comment how well cellphone networks worked, in between texts, tweets and Facebook updates about losing power.

The wireless industry takes very seriously its responsibility to restore its networks as quickly as possible. In addition to activating mobile cell sites, carriers share spectrum, pre-position and deploy assets, pre-arrange for refueling of generators in the immediate aftermath of storms, and work tirelessly with multiple local, state and federal government agencies before, during and after the storm, including the FCC, the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA. And wireless carriers are constantly refining and improving their business continuity/disaster recovery practices. As family members, consumers and operators of networks, we remain committed to keeping wireless subscribers connected when they need it the most.

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