Image: Utility Trucks
David J. Phillip / AP file
Utility trucks stage after Hurricane Gustav Sept. 2 in Lafayette, La. AT&T, the main landline phone company in the state, said it had 2,000 employees working to assess damage and perform repairs. Most of its cellular towers in areas hit by the hurricane were working afterward.
By
msnbc.com
updated 9/11/2008 6:40:39 PM ET 2008-09-11T22:40:39

As Hurricane Ike continues its path toward Texas, phone companies and wireless carriers are preparing. Are you?

Even if you don’t live along the Gulf Coast, the lessons learned since Katrina, and before that, Sept. 11, about the vulnerability of communications networks are important for everyone. And one of the lessons is that it’s good to be prepared and to give yourself options when services are strained or out.

Tropical Storm Hanna visited our area last weekend, its effects minimal, no major destruction. We were — and are — grateful. Our Internet and cable TV service was out for more than a day, a very small price to pay for something that could have been a lot worse.

I still had Internet and e-mail access because I use two different smartphones, an iPhone and a Palm Treo, both with those features. I have two cell phones because of the work I do. Without those phones, and without TV or Internet service over the weekend, I would have felt pretty cut off from the world.

And, luckily, the two wireless providers of those phones, AT&T and Verizon Wireless, respectively, didn’t seem to have any problems in our area, and the cell phones worked, as did my husband’s Sprint cell phone. One of the few plusses of one household using different carriers, and not having a "family plan" with one company, is that you increase your odds of success if one of those providers is out, but the other is still up and running.

If you don't want to add a second provider, consider a prepaid cell phone, one that runs on a different network than your regular cell phone. For example, if you have Verizon Wireless as your carrier, a Boost prepaid cell phone might be a good complement. Boost is owned by Sprint.

During Hanna, our landline phone still worked, something that isn’t always guaranteed during such bad weather. We do not “bundle” our Charter Communications service to include the phone with the TV and Internet service. In this instance, that was a good thing; there was no interruption to our phone service.

“Most of the outages were because customers lost power,” said Lizz Walker, a spokeswoman for Charter. “We had just under 35 (outages) in Virginia and North Carolina where our standby power supplies ran out, mainly in the Outer Banks (N.C.), where flooding kept us from going in right away to restore service.”

Customers using the company’s digital phone service “have the option of having a battery backup, which means they would not lose phone service,” she said.

But not everyone knows to do that. Walker said the back-up battery, which costs about $40, lasts up to eight hours. That can mean a world of difference if you’re without other communications resources.

The eight-hour issue
More and more of us are increasingly relying on cell phones as our main phones, dropping landline service completely.

More than a year after Katrina resulted in downed communications networks, the Federal Communications Commission mandated that nearly all cell phone sites provide at least eight hours of backup power for customers.

CTIA-The Wireless Association, the cell phone industry trade group, has challenged that mandate in court, and a federal appeals court recently put the FCC rule on hold.

Still, wireless carriers have worked to be better prepared for emergencies, adding portable generators and portable cell towers that can be moved relatively quickly to areas where their cell towers might be down, or where extra capacity is needed.

Sprint, for example, says it has spent $59 million in the Southeast for hurricane readiness with portable generators, cell sites on wheels and satellite cell trucks, as well as now having its own “private weather forecast company.”

Other carriers have made similar preparations. And at least one has made a thoughtful gesture to customers.

After Hurricane Gustav, Alltel Wireless said customers who were under mandatory evacuation orders in Louisiana and the Mississippi Gulf Coast between Aug. 29 and Sept. 12 will receive 1,000 free nationwide minutes, as well as unlimited text messaging for that period.

No matter what a company’s precautions and plans, it’s up to you to make your own in the event of an emergency. When it comes to cell phone service, here are some recommendations from wireless carriers and others:

Consider texting, not calling. Text messaging “has a greater success rate in getting through the network during high-usage periods, versus voice calls,” says T-Mobile, and it helps free up the voice part of the phone network for emergency calls.

CTIA-The Wireless Association, meeting in San Francisco this week, said Wednesday that text messaging in general continues to set records among wireless customers. In the United States, there were 75 billion messages sent in June, a 160 percent increase over June 2007, the organization said.

CTIA’s announcement comes at the same time that a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee is asking AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint and T-Mobile, the nation’s four largest wireless carriers, to justify the “sharply rising rates” customers are charged for text messages. Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., said the costs have gone from about 10 cents a message in 2005 to about 20 cents a message now.

Get ICE. Program your cell phones with emergency contact numbers, and consider “ICEing” them. That means putting the letters “I-C-E” (for “In Case of Emergency”) next to those numbers and the names of those you would need to reach should disaster strike.

David Aylward, director of COMCARE Emergency Response Alliance, a national nonprofit emergency communications advocacy group, recommends parents do that for their children’s cell phones as well.

Stay charged. Keep your cell phone batteries fully charged. Consider getting a second battery for each cell phone, and make sure they’re charged, as well.

Ziploc it. Round up all cell phones, pagers, batteries, cell phone car chargers, and keep them in a handy place and in a plastic bag to avoid water and other damage.

Go forward. Forward your home number to your mobile if you’re evacuated. “Because call forwarding is based out of the telephone central office, you will get incoming calls from your landline phone even if your local telephone service is disrupted at your home,” says AT&T.

“In the unlikely event that the central office is not operational, services such as voice mail, call forwarding, remote access call forwarding and call forwarding busy line/don't answer may be useful.”

Be patient. During an emergency, phone lines are jammed, and what you might hear are “fast busy” signals on your cell phone, or “a slow dial tone on your landline phone,” AT&T says.

“If this happens, hang up, wait several seconds and then try the call again. This allows your original call data to clear the network before you try again.”

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