Cell phone companies prepped back-up generators and other response plans in the event of power outages and infrastructure problems related to Hurricane Sandy, but they're also encouraging customers to do their part and limit their phone calls to avoid network issues seen in past emergencies.
At 5:29 this morning, the Federal Emergency Management Agency issued the following Tweet:
Phone lines may be congested during/after #Sandy. Let loved ones know you're OK by sending a text or updating your social networks.— FEMA (@fema) October 29, 2012
T-Mobile, AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint have have posted similar notes on their websites encouraging customers to use text-messaging, as phone lines can easily become overwhelmed when everyone tries to call to check on loved ones at once.
We've seen this happen in major storms before. As CNNMoney notes, "When Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005, AT&T's network was overwhelmed with calls in and out of the Gulf Coast region. At one point that day, 10 million people tried to call into New Orleans simultaneously. It was among the biggest localized calling events in the network's history."
What's different today, however, versus even seven years ago when Katrina hit, is how many more people now rely on cell phones entirely, eschewing landlines. According to a National Center for Health Statistics report [PDF] released earlier in October, over one-third of U.S. households only had wireless phones as of the second half of 2011.
For places affected by Sandy, these numbers could make the situation even more difficult, especially in major cities. Consider these numbers of wireless-only households by city: In Baltimore, 34.8 percent were wireless-only (versus 26.5 percent for the state as a whole); Essex County, New Jersey, had 33.5 percent versus 16.5 state-wide; 44.2 percent were wireless-only in D.C.; 22.9 percent in New York City counties and 19.7 for the state. Delaware had 26.9 percent. To compare, only a year prior, D.C. had 37.0 percent and New York City had 19.8.
Sprint communications manager Crystal Davis says that the company encourages text-messaging when there is the potential for delays in making phone calls.
She explains in an email: "A text message will only take a few seconds whereas someone on the phone talking about the event will take many minutes to conclude, therefore we could get roughly 30-50 text messages - if not more - sent in the same period of time a call would take place on our network."
AT&T news relations director Alexa Kaufman says much the same, noting that a text message only requires a "short burst of data," and Verizon Wireless spokesperson Melanie Ortel wrote in an email that the company "encourages customers to keep calls brief" and text message — "the best form of communication when wireless networks are taxed during extreme weather events."
Top image: Travelers from South Korea use their mobile phones after arriving to an empty terminal as flights were cancelled at LaGuardia airport in New York October 28, 2012. Tens of millions of East Coast residents scrambled on Sunday to prepare for Hurricane Sandy, which could make landfall as the largest storm to hit the United States, bringing battering winds, flooding and even heavy snow. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)