Earthquake plays havoc with East Coast cell networks

Cell networks went down in many areas immediately following the 5.8-magnitude quake. But Verizon, AT&T, and others say there was no damage to their networks. Here's why.

A woman tries to find cellphone service August 23, 2011 in Lower Manhattan, N.Y., after an earthquake centered in Virginia was felt in the New York area causing the evacuation of buildings.

The 5.8-magnitude earthquake that hit Virginia Tuesday afternoon and shook all up and down the East Coast didn’t just cause building evacuations. It wrought tech havoc as well. For a while, landline and cell service was disrupted along the Eastern seaboard, including in major urban centers such as New York City and Boston. (Don’t panic – service came back pretty quickly.)

The thing is: the cell networks weren’t physically damaged by the shaking. The tremors didn’t bring down any relay towers or wires. But because the quake was felt so widely – from North Carolina to New England – it prompted millions of people to make cellphone calls at the same time. This increased traffic brought cell networks to their knees for about half an hour.

Cell networks, after all, are susceptible to bottlenecking, just like highways during rush hour. The infrastructure isn’t designed to handle every customer trying to make a call at once, so an event like this that sends people scrambling for their handsets can cause problems for the phone companies.

In fact, most cell networks can easily withstand a far worse physical lashing than the one dished out by this quake. (Take, for example, Verizon’s switching centers in Florida, which are designed to withstand a Category-5 hurricane.)

The same thing almost happened with the Internet, as well. Akamai, one of the major content delivery networks, reported that Internet traffic spiked in the wake of the quake as people went in search of information about why the ground was shaking beneath them. There weren’t widespread reports of Internet congestion yesterday afternoon, though – rare as an East Coast quake might be, it takes a bigger event than that to clog up the tubes. Twitter's infamous Fail Whale didn't even show up.

Although the quake wasn’t physically responsible for the network congestion, it did trigger the shutdown of a nuclear power plant in North Anna, Va., less than 20 miles from the quake’s epicenter. Dominion Virginia Power, the plant’s owner, said the plant’s twin reactors shut down immediately following the first tremors, but all the radioactive material stayed safely contained. The plant ran on backup power – four diesel generators – until its electric power was restored. Twelve other plants, scattered from North Carolina as far north as Michigan, declared “unusual events,” which is the lowest level of nuclear emergency notice.

All you East Coast dwellers: was your cell network congested or slow following the quake? Did you notice any technological hiccups following the tremors? Let us know about your brushes with death Tuesday afternoon in the comments.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.