Jeff Gelles: Storm burnishes standing of cells, generators

In New York's Tribeca neighborhood, residents wait to charge their mobile phones with the help of a generator set up on a sidewalk. Other winners for performance were underground lines.
In New York's Tribeca neighborhood, residents wait to charge their mobile phones with the help of a generator set up on a sidewalk. Other winners for performance were underground lines. (RICHARD DREW / Associated Press)
Posted: November 01, 2012

Debbie Golden had power after a 15-hour failure at her Merion Station home, but no Internet access or phone service from Comcast for more than 36 hours. I know this because she sent an e-mail on her cellphone. Score points for cellphones and the wireless net.

Tracy Houston lost power at 2 a.m. Tuesday in West Oak Lane, and was still waiting Wednesday after Peco postponed his "estimated restore time" until almost midnight. Meanwhile, he was running his car for hours just to recharge his iPhone. Points for the internal combustion engine.

Rocco Mancini, a Yardley electrician, bought a portable generator about two months ago, after hooking up generators for about 30 customers over the last several years. He's got plenty of power despite a Peco outage, but he's had a problem with Verizon's FiOS: The Internet and TV work fine, but not his phone. Points for generators (and the electrical knowledge to use them safely).

How well did the technologies we rely on fare during and after the megastorm named Sandy?

In the Philadelphia area, at least, the hurricane-turned-cyclone has burnished the reputations of cellphones, generators, and buried power and gas lines, not to mention two old standbys: batteries and candles. In northern New Jersey and New York, it's less clear whether cellphones belong on the list.

Less comforting is the performance of broadband, cable, and Internet-based phones - all of which rely on electric power. Meanwhile, traditional, copper-wire phone service, which carries its own power, may lure a few of the fallen away back to the fold - including Golden, who says friends with plain old Verizon service never lost their connections.

This close to a disaster as big as Sandy, it's tough to paint in anything other than broad strokes. But a picture is emerging about some of the strengths and limitations of the latest tech trends.

Take Twitter, which many now see as an essential source of instant information.

Twitter helped Houston reach out to friends and colleagues in the IT industry. "I guess misery loves company," he says.

But Twitter also proved to be the source of a financially risky rumor of flooding at the New York Stock Exchange. If we needed a reminder of the limits of crowd-sourced, amateur journalism, that was a stark one - and just one of a flurry of misleading tweets during the storm.

What else showed its limits?

Except in places where lines are buried, anything relying on cables or wires showed its vulnerability to the mix of wind, water, and trees. If anyone who lives in Center City looked a bit smug this week, that may be why.

Failure rates were probably the worst in the areas that bore the brunt of Sandy's storm surge, particularly northern New Jersey and New York City. We don't know for sure, because the only companies disclosing details are the tightly regulated electric utilities.

In North Jersey, Public Service Electric & Gas said flooding in major switches forced it to cut off entire communities such as Newark and Jersey City, en route to outages affecting 1.7 million of its 2.2 million customers.

Peco didn't lose three out of four customers during the storm, but it still set a record: 850,000 outages among its 1.6 million total customers, or more than half. Some were reconnected almost instantly by a technology called a "reclosure" that allows a utility to shift power automatically from an adjacent area where service is still intact.

Neither Comcast nor Verizon gave specifics on Internet or TV outages, though Verizon reported phone outages that actually grew Wednesday from Tuesday - perhaps because people noticed only when the power came back on. In the cellular era, landline service isn't quite as critical.

Verizon spokesman Lee Gierczynski said 40,100 Pennsylvania customers lacked phone service Wednesday, up from 21,400 a day earlier. In New Jersey, phone-outage reports more than doubled, to 176,000 from 78,200.

On a broad scale, cell and broadband service clearly suffered, according to David Turetsky, the Federal Communications Commission's chief of public safety and homeland security.

Turetsky said Tuesday that failures were affecting about 25 percent of cell sites in the disaster areas - 158 counties stretching from Virginia to Massachusetts. On Wednesday, he said the failures had dropped by "a few percentage points."

About 25 percent of customers in the affected areas lacked broadband or pay-TV service Tuesday. By Wednesday, Turetsky said that number was under 20 percent.

Like Comcast and Verizon, most cellular providers declined to provide details - except, perhaps, when they had good news to report.

T-Mobile and AT&T Mobility announced Wednesday that they were sharing cell-site resources on an emergency basis to boost performance. To help those without Internet access, Comcast is offering free access, through Nov. 7, to its Xfinity hot spots.

And Verizon Wireless spokesman Sheldon Jones was happy to crow that "even at the storm's height, 95 percent of our cell sites were operational across the Philadelphia region."

Contact Jeff Gelles at 215-854-2776 or

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