42° Good Morning
42° Good Morning

Sandy stalls much of LI's cellphone service

A Verizon lineman prepares to replace downed poles

A Verizon lineman prepares to replace downed poles on Northville Turnpike in Riverhead. (Oct. 30, 2012) Credit: Randee Daddona

Even if Long Islanders somehow found the power to charge their mobile phones, they still had difficulty using them during and after the storm.

The reason is simple -- when the lights go out, so does the power that cell towers and antennas need to transmit calls, text messages and Words with Friends games. All the major carriers took steps in advance to keep their antennas functioning, but power outages were so widespread that much of Long Island was affected by dead cell service.

For example, in addition to all its other problems, Babylon chief of staff Ron Kluesner, a Gilgo Beach resident, said power was out there and cell service intermittent.

FCC chairman Julius Genachowski estimated Tuesday that 25 percent of the cell sites between Virginia and Massachusetts weren't working.

Representatives for the major cellphone carriers said Tuesday that they could not estimate how much of the Island was without service or how long it would take to restore it.

"We are in the initial stages of performing an on-the-ground assessment of our network for damage, and crews will be working around the clock to restore service," said AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel. "We are deploying personnel and equipment as soon as it is safe to do so."

He said it was "way too early" to know when service would be back to normal. Andrea Kimmett of Verizon Wireless said her company was "still assessing" what it would take to restore regular service.

Sprint Nextel said it has had outages in the New York tri-state area, the Washington metropolitan area, Pennsylvania, and parts of New England.

"These impacts are due to loss of commercial power, flooding, loss of cell site backhaul connections [that stream voice and data to antennas], site access and damaging debris," said Sprint Nextel spokeswoman Crystal Davis. "Given the ongoing weather conditions, we cannot provide a specific number of impacted customers, but we ask that they remain patient at this time and exercise caution in the aftermath of the recent events."

The companies took to Twitter to hand out both advice and consolation.

T-Mobile advised customers on its Twitter feed to go into their phones' settings and switch to 2G coverage if they're having trouble getting service. Data connections will be much slower, but customers will be more likely to have a connection. Phone companies also said that text messages are more likely to go through than voice calls.

In the end, though, the phone carriers were facing the same issues as any other utility.

"The East Coast is crazy right now," Sprint tweeted. "We have to repair the damage that Sandy has caused."

Because power outages always threaten cell service, the major providers prepared by having backup batteries or power generators for the antennas, or even bringing in temporary, mobile cell towers on trucks or trailers.

With Nicholas Spangler

More news