NEW YORK — Cell towers knocked out by Superstorm Sandy were slowly coming back to life Wednesday, federal regulators said, but about 1 in 5 were still out of service in a storm-hit area stretching from Virginia to Massachusetts.
That compares with 1 in 4 cell towers that were out of service Tuesday, the day after the storm made landfall.
David Turetsky, head of public safety and homeland security at the Federal Communications Commission, said the situation has improved more rapidly for cable customers. On Tuesday, about 25 percent of them lacked TV and possibly Internet and phone service, too, but that has declined to "well under" 20 percent. He doesn't have a good count of how landline phone service holding up, but anecdotal reports suggested it was available in more areas than cellphone service.
Meanwhile, competitors AT&T Inc. and T-Mobile USA announced what they described as an "extraordinary" measure to improve service. They're "merging" their networks in hard-hit areas, so that cell-tower antennas owned by one company can fill in the gap and provide service if antennas from the other company are out of service. That means T-Mobile and AT&T customers can use the other company's network for calls, text messages and Internet access.
There were few reports of major damage to telecommunications infrastructure, apart from flooding in some of Verizon's facilities in downtown Manhattan. But cell towers need power to work, and widespread power outages disabled many. Some towers have backup batteries and generators, but still go silent when battery power or fuel is exhausted. Phone companies vary in how many towers they equip with backup power. Verizon Wireless claimed that only 6 percent of its towers in the storm-hit areas were out of action Tuesday.