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Tech Check: Cell service during a disaster

by Doug Delony / KHOU 11 News

Posted on November 2, 2012 at 11:01 AM

Updated Friday, Nov 2 at 11:07 AM

HOUSTON – This week we’ve heard a lot about cell phone outages in the northeast related to Hurricane Sandy.

The FCC says 25 percent of cell towers were knocked out across ten states, and service could get worse as backup generators run out of diesel fuel.

Those of us who were in Houston during Hurricane Ike know what it’s like to go through a big disaster and then have to deal with spotty cell phone service. The problem is, now more than ever, so many people have cancelled their home landline phones, which tend to be more reliable than cell phones.

Others have switched to digital or Internet-based home phone service, which usually require electricity to work.

This makes cell phone service really important.

Cell phone towers broadcast in a big circle, and these circles are meant to overlap so you never lose coverage. But when there’s a disaster or emergency, huge outage gaps will often pop up as cell towers lose electricity or are damaged. Another thing that limits your connection to the outside world is the remaining cell towers become overloaded with people trying to call out – similar to how your phone doesn’t work at a crowded football game.

So what can you do? Here are a few tips:

>> Send a text message instead of calling: Text messages use less data and are more likely to make it out
>> Change locations: Even moving just a couple of blocks may put you back in range of a working tower
>> Download Skype before disaster strikes, and familiarize yourself with free apps that allow you to make calls over the Internet
>> Check for free working Wi-Fi in the area (if your home’s isn’t working): This will allow you to use apps like Skype on your smartphone
>> Turn your phone off when you’re not using it, otherwise it will constantly be searching for a signal, which drains the battery

As the Associated Press reported earlier this week, for true disaster preparedness, only a satellite phone will do, but the prices are steep. Phones for these kinds of networks usually cost more than $1,000, and the calls can cost more than $1 per minute. Ouch.

Questions? Comments? Feel free to reach out to Doug on Facebook ( or Twitter (@DougDelonyKHOU)