How Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile responded to Hurricane Ian. | Techy Kings


September 28 Hurricane Ian slammed into southwest Florida, packing the area with Category 4 winds and continuing across the state and then into the Carolinas and Virginia. As someone with friends, family and co-workers spread across the sunshine state, I’m used to the dread of seeing pictures of familiar places flooded and the uncertainty of not knowing when to expect to hear from people. you care Even relatively minor storms can temporarily disrupt power and cell service; hurricanes can do this for days or weeks, prolonging the time spent waiting for “I’m fine” texts or calls.

Ian took out his fair share of towers in Florida; According to the Federal Communications Commission, nearly one-fifth of the cell sites along its route were down at one point. Associated Press and NPR have aired stories of citizens unable to call for help or reassure loved ones that they survived the storm, and reports that the problem is particularly bad in Lee County, home to Fort Myers and one of the hardest hit areas, more than 65. According to the commission, percent of county mobile facility locations were offline the day after the storm.

But just over a week later, that number dropped to nearly 6 percent. This is due to the mobile operator’s years of experience in planning for and responding to extreme weather conditions. Here’s how mobile companies plan for and respond to hurricanes, and how they’re working to keep people online during disasters.

Before storm

In the days before the storm hit, carriers began preparing for damage and outages and preparing their infrastructure to avoid those things whenever possible — including bringing crews and equipment into the state and figuring out which parts of the network need to be reinforced. , and are taking steps to ensure that as much of their infrastructure as possible is operational even in the event of a power outage.

In a blog post, Verizon says engineers tested battery and generator backups at its mobile sites to make sure they would power up properly in the event of a power outage. The carrier also says it protects its switching facilities from hurricanes and has redundant fiber connections to keep them connected. T-Mobile has a similar post about how it has built equipment such as portable mobile sites attached to trucks and generators.

Drone shot of field filled with equipment and trucks.

T-Mobile staging area filled with portable cell quote ready to roll out to affected areas.
Image: T-Mobile.

AT&T’s preparations included similar actions. Chris Sambar, AT&T’s executive who oversees the carrier’s network, says he’s barricaded his operations centers with sandbags and covered doors, made sure there were workers on site to deal with any problems that arose (and that those workers had food and water for several days ) and stationed their repair equipment and crews right next to the predicted route or in busy areas of the trail. He also said portable cell sites are useful because they can connect to satellites for data and act as temporary cell towers for phones to connect to.

Some things require a triple exemption, one of which is nets used by first responders

Sambar says AT&T has three routes to critical offices should one of its suppliers lose a line. That wasn’t always the case: “During Hurricane Ida, we had two routes to the main switching center and found out we needed three,” he said.

In making the decision, AT&T “also reviewed routes around the country at major hub offices” to see if the channels it relies on are above-ground, underground or pass through potentially vulnerable infrastructure such as bridges. “Over the last year and a half, we’ve done kind of a sweep to really look at how we can strengthen the network even more than we had strengthened it a year ago when it was built.

Through the storm

When a storm hits, it’s mostly a wait-and-see game. Sambar says each AT&T cell site has an automatic alarm system that will alert the operator if power or data is lost, allowing the company to monitor where problems are occurring. “During storms like this, the vast majority of the problems are power,” he said, noting that connection problems are actually more common during restoration as power companies clean up debris and downed lines — sometimes AT&T’s fiber by accident, he said. is cut off during the process.

That’s not to say there weren’t connectivity issues; residents on Sanibel Island were stranded when the bridge connecting it to the mainland was severely damaged. According to Sambar, the fiber connecting that island also ran along the bridge and did not survive the storm. on the 28th afternoon, Verizon’s updates page noted that the carrier had noticed several sites down the west coast of Florida from Naples to Tampa. T-Mobile noted that commercial power outages also caused some of its towers to go offline.

T-Mobile and Verizon told their customers in the affected areas that they would get unlimited calls, texts and data, while AT&T promised to waive any overage charges.

After the storm

Once it’s safe, crews can begin working to repair damage that occurred during the storm. Throughout the week since the hurricane made landfall, carriers have been releasing updates on how their networks are holding up and explaining what steps they’ve taken to repair infrastructure; Verizon has turned its attention to deploying cellular sites, as well as repairing generators and refueling when certain equipment was connected to the Internet. According to Governor Ron DeSantis, by September 30 100 portable cell phone towers have been deployed in southwest Florida.

A view of the trailer with two satellite dishes and a large mast sticking out of the top.

One of Verizon’s cellular cell sites that communicates with satellites and acts as a temporary cell tower.
Image: Verizon.

Carriers had to deal with many problems. According to an FCC report on 29 In Florida, termination of cell phone sites has peaked at about 17 or 18 percent. By the 4th, about three percent were offline, only about 1 percent more than before the storm. But some counties had much higher outage rates, with DeSoto County having about 20 percent of its 26 cell sites (which was actually worse than the day before, when only 15 percent of its sites had problems) and Lee County. was about 14.5 percent.

Chart showing the percentage of mobile sites down in the disaster area by date.  It shows a sharp increase since September 28.  until the 29th, then gradually decreases from the 30th of September.  until October 4

It took a while, but operators are back online, whether that means restoring power or connectivity.
Chart: FCC

The report notes that “the number of cellular outages in a given area does not necessarily reflect the availability of wireless service in that area.” Basically, because cell towers often have overlapping coverage, 20 percent of them doesn’t necessarily mean 20 percent of the area is without service.

Damage to infrastructure caused by hurricanes can make it difficult even for heavy-duty and high-water trucks to get equipment where it needs to be, requiring additional measures. Sambar mentioned that AT&T used an amphibious vehicle to transport the satellite to Sanibel Island, and the company posted on its website how it used a helicopter to deploy a portable cell site on Pine Island. He also said the company uses drones for reconnaissance to remotely check cell towers that may be out of reach and assess whether they are intact. Verizon also announced that it has a drone on Sanibel Island “providing cellular coverage” for search and rescue teams.


Verizon Cellular Service Drone.
Image: Verizon.

In areas where the damage was less severe and cellphone towers remained standing, companies scrambled to stay in touch with each other’s customers. During the press conferenceDeSantis said, “I think all companies are now allowing other customers to roam on their network,” though he cautioned citizens to use regular calls instead of Wi-Fi calls. AT&T said on its website that its network served “more than 47 TB of traffic from other carriers.”

The carrier prepares for and manages that extra load by having network engineers do traffic estimates before the network opens, estimating how much extra traffic they’ll have to deal with, Sambar says. When other clients come online, they will monitor the network to make sure everyone can use it properly; “If we start to see serious degradation, we’ll have to push one or both of them away.”

He also said the sharing should not affect customers of FirstNet, the First Responder Network Authority, because they have the infrastructure and spectrum to do so. FirstNet is a government agency that partners with AT&T and is tasked with keeping first responders connected even during disasters. According to Sambar, the carrier has recovery equipment for FirstNet, and its responsibility to keep the network online was one of the reasons it launched triple redundancy. Verizon also has a service with the same purpose called Frontline. Both carriers mention the extra work and support they’ve put in to make sure rescuers can communicate with each other and with the people coordinating their efforts.

The future

While the need for wired and cellular infrastructure is not going away anytime soon, we are moving into a future where there are other ways to communicate with loved ones and emergency personnel, which can make service outages less scary. and dangerous.

In about a month, the iPhone 14 will have a feature that allows people to contact emergency services via satellite. While this won’t necessarily help people who just want to let their family know they’re okay, it could give people in immediate danger a way to connect with rescuers in a way that wasn’t available before.

For people without the latest iPhone, there are other possible solutions in the near future. T-Mobile is partnering with SpaceX to provide 5G-capable phone service via satellite, while companies such as Lynk and AST are developing similar technology. At this point, T-Mobile’s service is probably a year or two away, and while Lynk has already proven its ability to send messages to phones from space, it still needs to partner with a carrier and get approval before it can begin commercial service. .

Still, it’s safe to assume that during several hurricane seasons, people may have some connection until operators connect to their cell sites. This can be especially useful for people living in rural areas. There have been hints of how it might work this year; According to CNN, the state is using SpaceX’s Starlink Internet satellite to help restore connectivity in some areas.

Of course, there are still limitations. Connecting to satellites can require a lot of latency, and if you’re doing it with a phone, you don’t necessarily want to burn through your very limited battery when you’re not sure how long it will take to get the power back on. . But for those of us waiting from loved ones in disaster zones, a message or two can mean the world, and for those in disaster zones, being able to get a message can truly be the difference between life and death.


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