In the wake of super storm Sandy last week, people in the northeast of the US were left not only with huge amounts of damage to their property and infrastructure but also a loss of mobile communications; a crucial resource in the days following such an event.

The New York Times highlighted the importance of mobile communications, with many people being unnerved by the lack of access to information about the situation, such as whether water was safe to drink or when power was likely to be restored.

The operators reacted quickly as they received notifications from their network equipment and feedback from customers via Twitter and other mediums, and engineering teams were despatched to assess the situation and fix what they could.

Immediately following the storm, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) suggested that 25 percent of cell sites in the affected area were out of operation. By Friday, this had improved to 15 percent as operators and the FCC worked to improve matters.

The speed at which service has been resumed is impressive. With the storm’s high winds and water surge, many cell sites were flooded or cut off from power with other connecting infrastructure suffering from damage.

Engineering teams were challenged by a lack of power and sites being difficult to access (even Verizon Wireless’ office in Manhattan was flooded). It therefore took time to gain access to sites while generators were brought in to provide temporary power.

By Sunday, just five days after Sandy hit, Verizon Wireless, AT&T and T-Mobile were all reporting drastic improvements to the operational level of their networks.

Verizon said its network in the northeast was 98.1 percent operational, and T-Mobile, 95 percent. AT&T added that its network was 90 percent operational in New York City and up to 80 percent in Manhattan. AT&T said on Monday it was up to 98 percent coverage in the affected region, with 95 percent in New York City.

While repair work was carried out, AT&T and erstwhile acquisition target T-Mobile USA agreed to open up their networks so customers of either company could gain access to mobile services if their own network had poor availability.

AT&T deployed temporary towers to boost coverage and, along with Verizon Wireless, continue to provide mobile charging stations for anyone affected by power outages, regardless of whether they are customers.

This kind of collaboration is rare in what is a very competitive industry but shows that, in certain circumstances, working together rather than competing makes sense. Operators combined their assets and technical expertise to help get the northeast United States back on its feet.

As well as reacting so quickly to restore service, operators also took action to help relieve the other issues people are facing in the affected areas – including lack of power, fuel, food and in some cases, a roof over their head – with appeals for donations for the Red Cross relief effort.

Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile committed US$500,000, US$250,000 and US$100,000 respectively to the Red Cross, while Verizon Customers and the Verizon Foundation pledged a combined total of US$3 million to the cause.

Of course the companies will soon return to more day-to-day concerns of LTE coverage battles and potential mergers, but the extreme weather event of a week ago serves to illustrate what the US mobile industry can achieve in the face of adversity.

Tim Ferguson

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author(s) and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members