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Blackout hammered cell phone networks as outage dragged on

”Cell phone companies said that their backup systems wouldn’t be able to handle a long time without power”

Cellular carriers had a lot of trouble with their base stations in places where yesterday’s blackout happened because the backup batteries in the base stations ran out of power.

Mark Siegel, a spokesman for AT&T Wireless Services Inc. in Redmond, Wash., said that no cell phone company could afford to prepare its networks and backup systems for a “power outage of such massive proportions.”

Clay Owen, a spokesman for Cingular Wireless, said that service went out overnight at 1,200 cell sites in the New York metropolitan area that the company runs with T-Mobile USA Inc. in Bellevue, Wash. But things are “considerably” better today because the power is back on in the New York and New Jersey area.

Owen said that when the power went out in Detroit and Bloomfield, Michigan, 75% of the Cingular base stations stopped working. He said that the blackout affected 25% of its sites in Cleveland. The base stations have backup power systems that run on batteries, but they only work for a certain amount of time. Owens said, “After eight hours, we could use a good dose of AC.”

A spokeswoman for Nextel Communications Inc. in Reston, Virginia, named Leigh Horner, said that Nextel’s base stations also have backup battery power, but that the batteries start to die after six hours. Horner wouldn’t say how many of Nextel’s cell sites were down in the blackout area, but she did say that as of midday today, 50% of the sites in New York were back up and running. She said that it would take the most time to fix sites in Michigan.

Charles Fleckenstein, a spokesman for Sprint Corp. in Overland Park, Kansas, said that the blackout affected “many” cell sites run by the PCS division of the company. Fleckenstein said that some of them didn’t work because their backup batteries ran out of power, and others didn’t work because they couldn’t connect to networks run by local exchange carriers.

Verizon Wireless in Bedminster, N.J., said in a statement that there could be “isolated service outages” in New York, Detroit, and Cleveland because of “backup power limitations.”

AT&T Mobile’s Siegel said that all of the company’s backup power systems “worked and did what they are supposed to do,” but that no cellular company “can engineer its network to accommodate a 30-year phenomenon.” Some cellular base stations have backup generators as well as batteries, but Siegel said that it is hard to put generators in base stations that are high up on buildings in cities.

Siegel said that AT&T Wireless customers did have trouble making calls, which he said was because of “the power outage and huge numbers of calls.” He didn’t want to say how big the problem was.

Verizon said that the number of calls it got yesterday was four times what it usually gets in a day, and it asked customers to text instead of calling.

Travis Larso, a spokesman for the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association in Washington, also suggested that cell phone users use text messaging instead of calling, since text messages are easier to send and receive when there are a lot of calls. As of early afternoon today, approximately 80% of the cell sites in the blacked-out areas were operational, Larso said.


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