Hurricane Irene may test cell phone networks

WASHINGTON - When a 5.8 magnitude earthquake rocked the East Coast earlier this week, so many people grabbed their cell phones to call family and friends that networks quickly became overloaded.

Did you feel that? Cell networks clogged by calls

CBS News national correspondent Chip Reid reports the situation became so serious that the Federal Emergency Management Agency urged the public to "use email or text messages ... So that emergency officials can continue to receive and respond to urgent calls."

Special Section: Hurricane Irene
East Coast braces for potentially historic Hurricane Irene

Nearly 10 years after thew Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, when overloaded cell phone systems crashed, possibly hindering the response of police and firefighters, the federal government is still searching for a solution.

Now, Hurricane Irene will test cell phone networks again - and not just with call overload. There's the added threat of wind damage to signal towers. CNET's Maggie Reardon says, "when you have winds blowing 120 miles per hour, it can really affect the equipment that's on towers that's exposed to the environment. These towers are high, the equipment's up high."

During Hurricane Katrina, more than 1,000 cell towers were knocked out. And there's no federal standard for windspeeds that those towers must withstand.

Bobby Outten, manager of Dare County on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where Hurricane Irene is expected to make a direct hit, says, "All communications will be impacted because it doesn't take much to turn a tower the wrong way or turn a dish for our communications the wrong way."

Cell phone companies have spent millions in recent years to upgrade their technology. But, Reardon says, not for the worst-case scenario. "For cell phone carriers it really doesn't make sense from a cost perspective for them to be building their networks for the highest demand."

If the cell phone goes out, use a landline phone. But that won't work for everyone. More than a quarter of American homes are now cell-phone-only - and good luck finding a pay phone.

  • Chip Reid

    Chip Reid is CBS News' national correspondent.