It's hard to tell exactly where the cell phone outages are happening without exact information from the wireless companies, but because of the way cell phone technology works, we know that the densest areas with the most power outages and the worst weather damage—i.e., downtown Manhattan—are where cell service is hurting the most. Here's what we know: The Federal Communications Commission said Sandy knocked out 25 percent of all cell sites. As of Wednesday, Verizon said that 6 percent of its cell sites were still down, T-Mobile said that 20 percent of its New York City network was down and 10 percent was down in Washington, and AT&T declined to comment, reports The New York Times's Edward Wyatt. Those numbers might not sound huge, but because of the nature of the outages, they are enough to frustrate downtown Manhattanites.
The two biggest things that affect cell sites during storms are physical damage from wind and electricity. Both of those things happened during the storm over the last few days, especially in New York City and New Jersey, but all along the East Coast. Even with the power out in these areas, the sites can run on batteries and back up generators. Sprint has said its back-up power sources can last between 2 and 3 days, reports CNET's Merguerite Reardon. In the meantime, these companies can send people out to refuel. But the F.C.C said to expect that things will get worse as some sites shut down and others overload with users.
Then there's all the water that got into the cell towers, possibly causing damage and requiring repairs that might involve replacing parts. Those fixes will take longer because they can only happen once the water has cleared out. The cell phone companies have asked the city to help them pump out the water, according to Reuters yesterday.
The factors are all impacting Lower Manhattan, where, anecdotally, cell service is nonexistent. "Even charged cell phones south of 29th Street get no service at all," wrote the ever-more-uncomfortable in-New-York Andrew Sullivan at the Daily Dish. It feels like that because much of downtown still has no power and there are a lot of people trying to use the few remaining operational cell sites. But that alone doesn't mean that there is "no service at all" because of the way cell phone infrastructure works, as Reardon explains it:
If a cell site goes down, then customers in that area may not receive any service. And in rural areas where there are fewer cell sites, that's more likely. But in places like New York City, where there are hundreds of cell sites in relatively close proximity, users may be able pick up signals from adjacent cell sites. This is likely why people won't have service on one city block, but they will if they move in one direction or another.
However, with fewer cell sites, the ones still kicking are getting overloaded with refugee phone users, making it harder for customers to get calls and texts through. To combat these issues, T-Mobile and AT&T announced they would share networks in storm-damaged areas of New York and New Jersey. That should alleviate things a little, but until the power returns, New Yorkers can expect more of the same patchy service they've been getting. And even then, the cell companies will likely have some water damage repairs to do.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.