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October 29, 2012

How to stay connected during Hurricane Sandy

NEW YORK (AP) — When disaster strikes, phone and Internet service often takes a hit, right when it's needed the most. Here are some tips for communicating with emergency services and loved ones as Sandy collides with the East Coast:

— Cellphones may work even if the power goes out, but you can't count on them. The phones themselves, of course, have batteries. And the cell towers that relay your calls and other messages are often equipped with backup batteries and some have generators. Verizon says all its sites have at least eight hours of backup power.

But tower batteries run down, and refueling generators with diesel can be difficult if roads are flooded. If hurricane recovery drags on for days, cell service may go out due to a lack of "tower power." This is what took out the cellphone network in southern Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, complicating rescue and recovery efforts.

After Katrina, federal regulators wanted to mandate that all cell sites have at least eight hours of backup power. But much of the wireless industry objected to the rule, claiming it was illegally drafted and would present a huge economic and bureaucratic burden that would divert resources from the most disaster-prone areas. The requirement was tossed out.

Power loss isn't the only threat to a wireless network. Calls are carried from the towers by landlines, which are also susceptible to damage, and they connect to communications networks that also need power to function.

Wireless carriers have a menagerie of backup equipment to deploy in areas where their infrastructure has been destroyed, or where emergency responders need extra capacity. Towable cell towers are called Cells on Wheels, or COWs, while Cells on Light Trucks are called COLTs. AT&T calls generators on trailers GOATs.

— Even if cellphones work, wireless networks may be overloaded by people calling to check in on each other or surfing the Web. That's why cellphone companies recommend text messaging rather than calling in any disaster, because text messages use much less network capacity. They also don't use much battery power. Using Facebook and Twitter can be tempting, but try to keep usage brief and use the phone's apps rather than web browsers if possible, to minimize network use and battery drain.

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