Sign outside a North Hills cell tower antenna site. (Aug....

Sign outside a North Hills cell tower antenna site. (Aug. 25, 2010) Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

As Hurricane Irene marches north, New York area cellphone providers are securing rooftop equipment, readying mobile antennas and making sure extra workers are ready to repair any damage. Company officials said some disruption was likely this weekend, both from the weather and expected spikes in usage.

"There are certain things with acts of Mother Nature that no one can predict," said AT&T spokeswoman Ellen Webner. "If Irene bears down on the shorelines, there might be a loss of commercial power."

Of particular concern: the key transmission facilities in the city and on Long Island known as "switches," where voice calls and data are routed to their destination. "If you lose a switch, you can lose the whole network," said Tom Ellefson, a regional vice president for T-Mobile's Northeast region.

These facilities -- like the cell towers that send calls their way -- need power and workers to function. So companies have stockpiled batteries, food and sandbags, and scheduled fuel deliveries for backup generators in case of longer-term outages.

Verizon has activated its emergency coordination center to deploy recovery teams. If commercial power goes out, backup batteries and generators in Verizon's central switching offices, mobile units and field facilities are expected to keep power flowing and cell service available, the company said.

To aid safety officials who rely on its walkie-talkies, Sprint Nextel is assembling supplies and equipment at a hub 30 miles outside Washington, D.C., said spokeswoman Crystal Davis.

Company officials said their preparations are aided by their past experiences in the Gulf states and Carolinas, where hurricanes blow through regularly.

Providers warned customers to charge phones and stockpile extra charged batteries if possible. Keeping calls short and sending text messages when possible can limit user bottlenecks like those that clogged networks after this week's earthquake.

"Traffic tends to go up 1,000 percent," Ellefson said, referring to voice calls. At times like that, he said, "texting is extremely effective."

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