Updated figures released by federal officials yesterday show that 6,500 mobile phone towers and sites were damaged or disrupted as a result of Hurricane Irene. That number includes about 44 percent of all mobile phone sites in Vermont, which suffered massive flooding that cut off dozens of towns. 

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) took the action as a result of the widespread and prolonged network outages that occurred following Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast six years ago.

The FCC reported over four times as many mobile phone site outages on Monday as it did Sunday afternoon, taking into account the more recent ravages of Irene in New England states such as Vermont and Connecticut. Monday's count was 6,500, compared with 1,400 cell site outages on Sunday.

No TV, radio or landlines

The Monday figures also showed 210,000 landline customers out of service Monday afternoon, compared to 132,000 on Sunday. One million custumers were without cable TV service on Monday, compared with 500,000 on Sunday.

In addition, two television stations and 10 radio stations were down as of Monday afternoon, the FCC said.

The updated FCC figures show about 44 percent of all mobile phone sites were out in Vermont, 35 percent in Connecticut, 31 percent in Rhode Island and 25 percent in Virginia. In North Carolina, the percentage dropped to 11 percent of mobile phone sites down, an improvement from 14 percent registered on Sunday.

Why mobile phone masts go down

Many times, mobile phone site outages are due to power failures. Sometimes power can be restored quickly to the mobile phone sites by providing gasoline-powered portable generators, according to carriers and rescue officials interviewed. Flooding at the base of mobile phone masts can cause circuit disruptions, or an antenna at the top of a mast could be blown out of alignment, requiring a relatively minor repair. Rarely are 120-foot-tall masts completely knocked over.

The FCC and the carriers do not track voice and data network outages by numbers of subscribers, since a mobile phone's failed transmission to one tower could transmit to another working tower nearby.

Despite the increased outages reported, the three largest wireless carriers in the US - Sprint, Verizon Wireless and AT&T - issued statements yesterday saying that their crews were making repairs and that no significant network outages had been encountered after the storm moved into Canada.

The FCC confirmed that no major network switch was knocked out of service in the storm. On Sunday, the FCC reported all 9-1-1 centers as well as public safety officials had retained communications.