Hurricane Sandy Could Threaten Cell Infrastructure

Oct 29, 2012
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Finally this hour, it's time for All Tech Considered, the Sandy edition. When people talk about a storm doing damage to infrastructure, I typically think of trees falling on power lines or crashing into telephone polls. Bang. You're cut off, blacked out, living by candle light and popping batteries into the portable radio. These days, though, there's another infrastructure that keeps us in communication - spoken and written - getting news and entertainment to us. It even comes with a flashlight: the smartphone.

Even without power, if you've got a car and a charger, you can stay powered up. So what threat does the big storm in the East pose to that pocket-sized lifeline? Well, joining us now is Maggie Reardon, mobile technology correspondent for She's joining us, in fact, by smartphone from New York. Welcome to the program once again.

MAGGIE REARDON: Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: I assume that my mobile phone sends and receives a signal to and from a tower. Are those towers vulnerable in a big storm?

REARDON: Yes. They can be. And you're absolutely right. Your cell phone will connect to a cell phone tower, and that's how you communicate. But that's the only place that it's wireless. From there, the communication goes into the ground, and then you're subject to any other kinds of disruptions that you might get. Like with your Internet service, if something happens to a major artery into the communication system or something like that.

SIEGEL: At first, though, just as far as the towers are concerned, have they held up under hurricane-strength winds typically?

REARDON: They have. And, you know, there have been occasions where Mother Nature has been a little bit too much for cell phone towers. But the cell phone companies are very well-prepared for these types of incidents, and they have these cell towers that are basically on wheels that they can wheel into a community and be able to restore power. The other thing that makes the cell phone network particularly vulnerable is power outages because these cell phone towers need power to be able to transmit the signals.

And luckily, they have generators that are there and battery power, and most of them can stay up for about 48 to 72 hours, and they can be refueled. So even if power goes out, people will still have cell phone connectivity because the towers will have their own power.

SIEGEL: And it would take a few days, though, after which someone would have to go and repower up those towers.

REARDON: Yeah. Absolutely. But, you know, that's all dependent on how bad the damage is during the storm and how safe it is for those workers to get out there. And, you know, in Hurricane Katrina, that was a very big issue. But I think that the cell phone companies have learned a lot, and they seem to be pretty well-prepared for these types of incidents.

SIEGEL: We can assume today and tomorrow given the number of Americans who live in the path of Sandy, there are going to be a tremendous number of calls on mobile devices trying to find out how are you doing, what's happening where you are, do you still have power and the like. How degrading is it to the system for so many people to be making calls at once?

REARDON: Well, that is a concern. But I do have to explain something here. It's a little bit different, you know, I'm sure people in the Washington area and other people on the East Coast remember when we had that earthquake a little over a year ago, and the phone network seemed to get jammed up then. So that was a problem because when everybody is trying to make a phone call at the very same time, they're more likely to get a message that's saying the network is overloaded.

But in the case of a hurricane, it's probably unlikely that everyone is going to be calling at the exact same time. But if you're having trouble getting through, your best bet is to try to send a text message because with a phone call, you're either connected or you're not connected, but with a text message, the network will keep trying to send that message even if there's no availability on the network.

SIEGEL: Well, Maggie Reardon, thanks a lot for talking with us once again, this time about mobile communications and hurricanes.

REARDON: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: Maggie Reardon writes about mobile technology for Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.