FCC examining storm damage to area phone networks after 911 calls failed

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is looking into the damage that the massive storm that swept from the Midwest into the Northeast on Friday caused to wireless and landline phone networks in the mid-Atlantic. 

As of Monday morning, 16 percent of cell towers in West Virginia were still disabled. Nearly 11 percent of Maryland's towers were down, as well as 9 percent in Virginia and 3 percent in Washington, D.C., according to the FCC.


Widespread power outages also caused problems for many 911 call centers in the region.

Lauren Kravetz, a spokeswoman for the FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, said the commission is still investigating the problems with emergency calls, but that 911 operators might have been unable to identify a caller's number and location. She said it is unclear how many people were unable to make an emergency call at all.

According to The Washington Post, many 911 callers in the region heard either silence, busy signals or recorded messages saying the line was inoperative.

"We plan to meet with a number of carriers in the coming weeks to explore the cause of service issues to 911 service centers, overall lessons learned, and other issues to ensure that the public received the best communications service possible and is able to communicate effectively and in a way that safeguards public safety in these situations," David Turetsky, chief of the FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, said in an emailed statement.

Gordon Smith, CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters, sent a letter to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski on Tuesday, arguing that the damage to phone networks demonstrates the importance of local broadcasters.

"This weather emergency again highlights the fact that broadcasters' 'one-to-everyone' transmission architecture delivers a robust and reliable signal to hundreds of thousands of people simultaneously, with little or no risk of a service disruption," Smith wrote.

The storms also reportedly disrupted a major Amazon data center in Ashburn, Va. The outages took down Netflix, Pinterest and Instagram, which rely on Amazon's cloud computing services. 

No government services were disrupted by the Amazon outage, but the incident prompted Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.) to move ahead with a hearing to examine the benefits and dangers of cloud computing.

"Last week’s powerful thunderstorms, along with the massive disruptions they caused, exposed some of the vulnerabilities of cloud computing," said Bono Mack, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade. She said the panel will also examine privacy and data security issues related to cloud computing.

Bono Mack's hearing could come later this month or sometime in the fall.