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Cell Phones, Internet After Hurricane Sandy: What You Need To Know

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CELL PHONE INTERNET HURRICANE SANDY
A newly launched Apple iPhone 5 smartphone is displayed at the Softbank mobile phone shop in Tokyo on September 21, 2012. Just over a month later, Hurricane Sandy hit the U.S., causing problems for a number of cell phone service providers and other telecommunications infrastructure. (YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/GettyImages) | Getty Images

Residents along the U.S. Eastern Seaboard are struggling with voice and data services in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which has killed dozens and ravaged communication, transportation and utility infrastructure in the Northeast. Damages from the storm are estimated in the tens of billions. Millions on the Eastern Seaboard were left without power, cable or landline service in their homes, as well as spotty or non-existent mobile reception.

How could this happen when telecommunications companies had prepared for Sandy's fury ahead of the storm's landfall? Verizon and AT&T told the Associated Press earlier this week that preparations for the superstorm included "topping up fuel for backup generators and lining up disaster recovery trailers to move into flooded areas after the storm passes," in addition to readying backup generators for cell towers. Despite precautions, strong winds knocked over power lines and took out cell towers in the hardest-hit regions, while tidal surges seeped into underground facilities where sensitive and critical networking equipment was installed.

Verizon, which provides Internet and telephone services and is the largest wireless carrier in the United States, was hit extremely hard in New York and New Jersey. According to Reuters, flooding from the storm damaged telecom equipment in three of Verizon's major switching offices, located in lower Manhattan, Queens and Long Island. The failure of these centers completely wiped out non-emergency service in those areas. Network issues persist in the Northeast.

Wind and flooding disrupted or knocked out service for AT&T Inc, Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile, and weather-related issues plagued the networks after the storm passed.

Power outages also knocked out Internet services for many customers of Comcast, Cablevision and Time Warner Cable. In the New York City boroughs, power from major utility supplier ConEd was down for more than 600,000 customers, per the company's website on Wednesday evening. Con Ed estimates that users should have power back by the end of the week.

The very worst of the outages are centralized in lower Manhattan, where our own Jason Gilbert reports that residents without electricity in their homes or voice and data service on their mobile devices can be seen queuing up to use public pay phones.

The Federal Communications Commission reported on Tuesday that the superstorm had downed one out of every four cell towers in 10 states. On Wednesday the FCC issued a statement that affected communication infrastructure was recovering gradually, but that the biggest problems remained in states like New York and New Jersey. Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint and Comcast have not yet reported on how many customers lost service or have had service troubles as a result of the storm.

Without stating how widespread network troubles were, AT&T and T-Mobile announced a temporary deal on Wednesday allowing customers in New York and New Jersey to seamlessly switch between both networks without incurring extra charges on their normal mobile bills.

Verizon representative Alberto Canal told The Huffington Post on Wednesday that damage has not been assessed in some areas because the storm had displaced customers to other areas. Though a release on Tuesday stated that service would begin returning to normal in a week or more, the company's website on Wednesday cited a "service emergency" for New York, Connecticut, Washington, D.C., Delaware, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

According to a statement from Sprint given to Bloomberg BNA, the carrier is aware of network problems in Connecticut, New England, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.

Reps from Cablevision and Time Warner Cable told Reuters that service would return alongside electricity service that was knocked out by the storm.

Fierce storms in the future could cause even more damage, similar to or worse than that from Sandy.

"This will happen again," disaster management consultant Philip Jan Rothstein told The Huffington Post. "When you walk around NYC and you see all the gratings in the sidewalk, that’s where the transformers are, the fiber, the systems, there’s a lot of connectivity and it’s all underground. That stuff has to sit somewhere, some of it sits in buildings, some of it sits in basements, some of it sits underground. Basements flood."

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The Huffington Post is eager for insights from our community, especially people with experience in power, infrastructure and engineering, on the adequacy of emergency preparation in advance of Hurricane Sandy, and the degree to which past disasters have informed adequate planning and construction. Please send a note to sandytips@huffingtonpost.com with insights and suggestions for the important questions that need to be asked of relevant private sector and government officials, and point us toward stories that need to be pursued.

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