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Cell Phone Outage Concerns Rise As Hurricane Irene Barrels Up East Coast

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People use their cellphones as they stand in a square outside the courthouse after an earthquake was felt in New York on August 23, 2011 causing buildings to be evacuated. (credit: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

People use their cellphones as they stand in a square outside the courthouse after an earthquake was felt in New York on August 23, 2011 causing buildings to be evacuated. (credit: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – As Hurricane Irene makes her approach, many people are wondering if the storm will knock out their cell phone service.

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.

The situation became so serious that the Federal Emergency Management Agency urged the public to “use email or text messages…so that emergency officials could continue to receive and respond to urgent calls.”

More: Track Irene’s Path | Hurricane Resources | NYC Evac Zone Finder | Prepare For The Storm

Nearly 10 years after 9/11, 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.

Maggie Reardon, a senior writer for tech website CNET, says, “When you have winds blowing 120 mph it can really affect the equipment that’s on towers, that’s exposed to the environment.”

During Hurricane Katrina over 1,000 cell towers were knocked out and there’s no federal standard for wind speeds that those towers must withstand.

Photo Galleries: Worst Hurricanes Of Past Decade | Hurricane Irene

Bobby Outten, manager of Dare County on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where 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,” Reardon said.

Of course, one option if your cell phone goes out is to use a landline phone but that won’t work for everybody – more than a quarter of American homes are cell phone-only.

Were you able to make a call during the earthquake? Are you concerned about service? Let us know below…

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