How Sandy disrupted phone communications

East Village residents sit on corner of Avenue C that gets cellphone reception and make calls November 1, 2012 as New Yorkers cope with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

The Federal Communications Commission will hold the first in a series of field hearings on phone outages during natural disasters on Tuesday. The hearing, in New York and New Jersey, will focus on the blow Hurricane Sandy inflicted on communications networks. 

Sandy knocked out about a quarter of the cellphone towers in the hardest-hit states. Andrew Adam Newman lives in New York’s Greenwich Village. He just had time to post a horrifying video and pictures of rising water on his Facebook page before his phone went dead. Most of his neighbors were in the same boat.  Newman says many of them wandered around like zombies, trying to get a signal.

“I saw people walking around the neighborhood just staring at their phones," he says. "They looked like people who get metal detectors out and walk all over a football field looking for a nickel.”

Harold Feld, senior vice president of Public Knowledge, a non profit in Washington, says it doesn’t have to be this way. He wants the FCC to force cellphone companies to sometimes share their networks.

“These providers are used to competing with each other," he explains. "So the answer in this case may be, OK, when an emergency comes down, you’re all going to have to work together whether you like it or not.”

The FCC is expected to consider that issue at the hearing. And also look at how well cellphone companies prepared for Hurricane Sandy.

About the author

Nancy Marshall-Genzer is a senior reporter for Marketplace based in Washington, D.C. covering daily news.

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