AT&T, T-Mobile Team Up as Damaged Networks Still Strained

Wall Street Journal notes: As cell service remained strained in the aftermath of Sandy, former merger partners AT&T Inc. and T-Mobile USA said they would share the job of repairing their damaged networks.

Even as wireless carriers and government regulators were saying mobile networks are improving in the area hit by the historic storm, customers continue to have problems and possibly worsening service in pockets around New York City. The problems coincided with more businesses opening Wednesday in one of the hardest-hit and densest regions of the country.

Anecdotal reports showed continued outages, with some worsening, although the complexity of the network can make it difficult to gauge the overall state of the region’s wireless system.

In a sign of the need to bolster capacity, AT&T and T-Mobile — carriers whose $39 billion planned merger was shot down by regulators last year — signed an agreement for their customers to use each other’s networks in New York and New Jersey. They are also working to begin sharing resources as soon as Thursday to fix their networks, which use similar wireless technology.

“We are looking to collaborate more broadly on the restoration effort so that we can bring up complete services in an area in a faster manner than if we were working on our own,” Neville Ray, Chief Technology Officer for T-Mobile said in an interview.

The idea is to “divide and conquer,” he said, and “have two companies working to bring up one network, rather than two companies working to bring up two networks.”

An AT&T spokesman declined to comment.

Under the roaming agreement between the companies, customers can place calls or use mobile data and the service will be carried by whichever network is most operational in their area. The service won’t affect customers’ bills. The companies had a similar arrangement in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Julius Genachowski, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, said Wednesday that network conditions were improving, but said “serious outages” remained in the New York and New Jersey area and warned that “the crisis is not over.” On Tuesday, Mr. Genachowski said the condition of mobile networks could get worse as power outages and flooding persist.

Power outages cause equipment to switch to backup power that can generally last two or three days, but infrastructure damage can make it hard to access that equipment, causing the problems to continue or worsen in some areas if grid power remains unavailable.

Much of lower Manhattan is without wireless or wireline service, and mobile phone users throughout the city complained on Twitter about service problems that seem to be increasing with time.

The nature of cellular networks, creating a blanket of coverage by using individual nodes, can make for inconsistent service when equipment isn’t functioning or is simply overwhelmed by volume at a time of reduced capacity.

The major wireless telecom WTT -3.20% providers, for their part, have provided few details on their service problems, other than to acknowledge that issues exist and the companies are working to fix them. People moving in and out of service areas can make it difficult to estimate the number of people without service, companies said.

The FCC said Tuesday that 25% of cell towers in the storm-affected areas of the 10 states hit by Sandy were damaged. It said Wednesday that the rate had dropped “a few percentage points” over a day. Verizon Wireless said 94% of its sites are functional in the Northeast region hit by the storm. Verizon Wireless is a joint venture of Verizon Communications Inc. VZ -0.20% and Vodafone Group PLC.VOD.LN +0.89%

Sprint Nextel Corp. S +1.09% spokesman said the company’s biggest obstacle remains obtaining backhaul connections, the wires that link cell sites to their broader networks, and getting commercial power. In New York City the company has restored service to about 75% of its network, he said.

AT&T has been having widely reported wireless problems in and around the city since the storm hit, but Verizon Wireless service seemed to get worse Wednesday. New York State assemblyman Alec Brook-Krasny and Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz both reported on Twitter that there were outages in Brooklyn and the city in general from Verizon Wireless.

Checks with subscribers show that some Verizon Wireless phones–which were largely working yesterday–weren’t able to make or receive calls during parts of Wednesday, particularly in Brooklyn and Midtown Manhattan. Some reported worsening service in New Jersey.

A Verizon Wireless spokesman said its service in lower Manhattan and the metropolitan area have improved as power and the wired connections to cell sites improved.

An AT&T spokesman said a vast majority of the company’s cell sites in the Northeast were online and working. Both said teams were working to restore service in impacted areas.

T-Mobile could have it network in lower Manhattan and Long Island restored in the next two or three days, Mr. Ray said. In New Jersey, where the damage isn’t fully known, outages may persist into next week, he said.

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