Cellphone users could be incommunicado for the second time this week when Hurricane Irene slams the East Coast.
It’s a concern that has both federal regulators and cellphone carriers — not to mention millions of smartphone-dependent consumers — bracing for the second major stress test of the nation’s wireless networks in just a few days.
It was only Tuesday that a 5.8-magnitude earthquake rocked the eastern seaboard, shaking nerves and rattling wireless networks to the point that many could not make calls for hours.
This time, it could be high winds and strong rain that could affect carriers such as AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile, and make communication difficult for those weathering the storm.
It's too early to predict the effects on wireless carriers, but the FCC is tracking Irene. An FCC official told POLITICO the agency's "24-hour FCC Operations Center is monitoring the path of the storm and staying closely coordinated with FEMA and the National Communications System at DHS."
"We have also reached out to all the major carriers who may be affected to ensure that [their] hurricane preparation plans are being implemented and to see how we can help,” the FCC official said.
Meanwhile, Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate told CNN on Thursday that high winds and rain could spell trouble for mobile networks.
"Remember, cellphones themselves, with heavy congestion, may not be able to get through," he said, noting "local television and radio stations," as well as social networking, may be more helpful.
To prepare for problems, FEMA on Thursday set up two Mobile Emergency Response Teams in Raleigh, N.C., and Fort Jackson, S.C., to handle emergency response communications needs.
The FCC, meanwhile, has deployed two Roll Call Spectrum Scanning teams to work out of FEMA's offices in Atlanta and Boston. Those teams conduct scans after the hurricane makes landfall "to determine which critical communications systems might be impacted," according the Obama administration.
Of course, the hurricane this weekend could present a broader challenge to telecom carriers than the earthquake did.
The earthquake brought on congestion as millions took to their smartphones simultaneously to check with loved ones and share stories. The wireless network infrastructure, however, remained intact and undamaged, and landlines worked properly.
That could happen again this weekend. Yet the hurricane adds to the mix heavy wind and rain. That could create trouble for infrastructure of all kinds, potentially knocking out power or disabling home Internet connections.
Though an extreme example, Hurricane Katrina knocked out numerous cell sites throughout the Gulf Coast.
For now, all four major wireless carriers — AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint — have noted this week they are ramping up preparations in advance of the storm.
AT&T noted on Twitter it is engaged in "pre-storm network prep," and the company explained on its website that the work includes "adding capacity" to accommodate for higher call volumes while checking generators.
Sprint noted in a news release that it is "strategically staging portable generators" to deal with power losses. Verizon said it is prepping its wireless and wireline networks for the worst — moving portable equipment, backing up batteries and generators in switching offices and more.
T-Mobile also promised to stay active, reporting on its website that "teams will continue to support and assist any network restoration that is needed as soon as the hurricane passes."
This article first appeared on POLITICO Pro at 10:34 a.m. on August 26, 2011.