FCC says Hurricane Sandy knocked out 25 percent of cell towers in its path

Hurricane Sandy knocked out 25 percent of the cell towers in affected regions, the Federal Communications Commission said Tuesday.

The hurricane has also disrupted cable TV, broadband Internet and landline phone service for 25 percent of customers in the affected areas, according to the FCC. About 7 to 8 million people are currently without power.

"The storm is not over. Our assumption is that communications outages could get worse before they get better — particularly for mobile," Julius Genachowski, the chairman of the FCC, told reporters during a conference call.

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He said flooding, power outages, high winds and snow disabled the cell towers, leaving millions of customers without service. He emphasized that in the hardest areas, far more than 25 percent of towers were disabled, but in other areas, the figure is lower. Many towers that are still in service are running on backup generators, according to David Turetsky, chief of the FCC's public safety bureau. 

Turetsky said carriers have already begun recovery efforts, but he warned that flooding could cause more power outages and disable more cell towers.

Genachowski said a "very small number" of 911 call centers also went down as a result of the storm. He said some 911 centers had to redirect calls to other centers, but those redirected calls lacked information about the caller's location.

He urged people to only call 911 if there is a "life-threatening emergency" and said people should limit non-essential phone calls. The FCC chairman said texting and social media are good alternatives to long phone calls that clog the airwaves.

Communications companies are reporting outages to the FCC through the voluntary Disaster Information Reporting System. The FCC will coordinate with the companies, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and state officials to restore service.

Before the storm hit on Monday, Genachowski spoke to the chief executives of the major communications companies, discussing preparedness efforts and offering the commission's resources and support.

The FCC's emergency response team, which includes top commission officials, worked through the weekend to prepare for the storm.

Turetsky said the FCC has three "roll call" teams ready to deploy with specialized equipment that can analyze which frequencies are still carrying signals and which frequencies have gone dark. The information can help FEMA and state officials restore communications services. The FCC also has field engineers who can help FEMA's communications recovery efforts.