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Mobile Phone Companies Stage For Possible Storm Damage

David Boraks

A big question as people prepare for Hurricane Irma around the Southeast is: "Will my cell phone work in the storm?" Carriers are mobilizing this week to make sure the answer, hopefully, is yes.

It’s an important question, since so many people now have dropped land-line telephone service and rely only on mobile phones for calls and internet.

Kate Jay of Verizon Wireless said the company's mobile phone switching centers are designed to withstand bad weather. These are the data centers that route tens of millions of voice and data connections on a regular day. Jay said they're ready to handle even more calls during a crisis like Hurricane Irma.

"They feature hardened shells, really large-scale on-site power generation, and multiple other backup systems to ensure that our network remains strong, that it's running, and it's reliable. There is a backup to the backup to the backup," Jay said.  

Cell towers can be more vulnerable, but they're built to withstand high winds and storms, too. And most have backup generators on site, she said.

Still, there can be problems. Some cell sites are on existing structures - water towers or buildings, for example. If those are damaged, wireless service can go down, too.

So wireless carriers also are staging fleets of movable cell sites in North Carolina and other states - what Jay calls their "network farmyard."

“COWS, COLTS, CROWS, GOATS. And what that means is - a COW is a cell on wheels, a COLT is a cell on light trucks. They function as mobile cell towers, so if we do have those hard-hit areas, where we need to bring in that extra capacity quickly, we can do that,” Jay said. Also, a CROW is a cellular repeater on wheels and a GOAT is a generator on a trailer. 

Those preparations are happening just as mobile phone companies wind down their responses after Hurricane Harvey in Texas. Tanya Jones runs Sprint's Mobile Response Team.

“At this moment, I am driving a SAT COLT, a satellite cell on light truck from Texas. We actually just de-mobilized from Hurricane Harvey, since our network started restoring in the area. And we are driving into, actually, Atlanta, Georgia, so we can pre-stage equipment to drive it down into the impact areas, immediately after the storm passes,” Jones said.

Wireless companies say customers should be prepared, too. Make sure devices are charged. Have a car charger or portable battery recharger in case the power goes out. And in areas with storm damage, phone users are urged to send text messages in place of phone calls. That frees up the network for people who need to call 911.

In aftermath of the storm in the Caribbean, most phone companies are offering free international calling and data during the emergency. They say they'll extend that to Florida and other states as the storm advances. Check with your carrier for details.