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How to connect when cell service cuts out

Mobile networks can get bogged down or cut off in disasters, as Monday's Boston Marathon bombings showed. But there are still ways to get through.

By MSN Money Partner Apr 16, 2013 11:30AM

This post comes from MSN Money contributor Michelle V. Rafter.

  

Runners react near Kenmore Square after two bombs exploded during the 117th Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013 in Boston (© Alex Trautwig/Getty Images)

Cellphone service in the Boston area suffered Monday as worried friends and family tried to reach runners participating in the race, where two explosions near the finish line killed three people and wounded more than 150 others.

 

It is a common scenario in disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy and  the 2011 Japanese tsunami, to name a few. Such emergencies can take out cell service completely or put such a heavy burden on mobile networks that calls can’t get through.

 

Even when the worst happens and cell networks are compromised, there are work-arounds.

 

In the aftermath of the explosions, a Verizon Wireless spokesman said the network was seeing “elevated” calling and data use in the region, and boosted network capacity around the scene to accommodate the added traffic.

 

Verizon spokesman Scott Charlston denied some reports circulating on Twitter in the hours immediately following the bombing that government agencies asked the company to shut off service to prevent the possibility of triggering additional bombs.

Here are a few ways to keep using your mobile phone when service is extremely limited or not available:

 

1. Dial 911. In an emergency, you can always use a mobile phone to call 911 for help -- as long as your phone still has some battery life left. By law, cellphones must be able to place emergency calls even if a carrier’s network is down. Today, about 70% of all 911 calls are made from wireless phones, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

 

2. Send a text instead of making a call. If a mobile coverage is sporadic, you’re better off sending a text instead of trying to make a phone call. Text messages are made up of less bits, which means the probability of getting through spotty connections is greater than trying to make a call, says Charlston of Verizon. “If you imagine the network as a huge tube, voice calls are like softballs or baseballs going through, and texts are like BBs. You can fit a lot more through,” he says.

 

3. Use Wi-Fi. Expats Joan and Rich Bailey were living 30 minutes outside of downtown Tokyo when the tsunami struck in March 2011. Although cellphone service in the area went out, the couple were able to use their phones over Wi-Fi wireless Internet connections to call family and friends in the United States, Joan Bailey says. Today, most smartphones work over Wi-Fi networks in addition to carriers’ 3G or 4G networks, which means you could use phones on networks at airports, coffee shops or other locations with free public hotspots.

4. Email to a cellphone number. If you’re trying to reach the cell number of someone stuck in a disaster zone and can’t get through, you may have better luck emailing them a text. Send a text message by combining the person’s cell number and the network domain of their cellphone carrier. For example, T-Mobile’s network domain is “@tmomail.net,” so an email to a T-Mobile customer could look like this: “5557775555@tmomail.net.” This list of cell phone carriers’ domain names includes than a dozen major U.S. cell companies, including AT&T, Cricket, T-Mobile, Verizon, and Virgin Mobile.

 

5. Use your mobile carrier's website to send a message. If you can’t use your phone but have access to a computer and an Internet connection, send an SMS message from your cell carrier’s website. A Verizon customer, for example, can log onto their account on the carrier’s website, VerizonWireless.com, then find the “My Verizon” tab and go to “My Messaging” to send someone a message of up 1,000 characters.

 

6. Use social networks. Last October, Superstorm Sandy wiped out Jenna Glazer’s cable TV and land-line phone service and made cell service spotty for several days. “We just kept trying, and every now and then we were able to get reception for a minute and just let someone know we were OK,” says Glazer, who lives on New York's Long Island. “Then the people who weren't in the area would post notes on Facebook to let others know we were OK.” After the Japanese tsunami, the Baileys used Facebook to tell friends halfway around the world that they were OK, and the friends shared the news with the couple’s family.


“My mom got about 10 calls then letting her know we were fine,” Bailey says. “I Skyped my father that night.”

 

When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, it knocked out electricity but not cellphone service.

 

Marian Dolan, stationed with her husband at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss., had enough juice left in her cellphone to notify a sister-in-law. Aside from that, it was days before the rest of her family knew for certain that she and her family where OK.


That wouldn’t fly today, when cellphones are far more ubiquitous. “Now when we have them, I think we need to get the word out right away, there’s more worry” when you don’t hear from people, she says.

 

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5Comments
Apr 16, 2013 1:50PM
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I myself prefer smoke signals, carrier pigeon and the pony express.
Apr 16, 2013 3:15PM
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Face it we have made our selves lambs to the slather with technology
Apr 16, 2013 2:50PM
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Cell phones went down in Boston because the authorities closed them down in order to prevent cell phones from triggering bombs. The circuits weren't overloaded. 
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