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First responders concerned with cell phone outages on Cape Cod during bomb cyclone

Main Street in Hyannis after the storm
Stephen Colella
Main Street in Hyannis after the storm

The bomb cyclone last week shut down more than power to Cape Cod residents.

Cape residents also reported widespread gaps in cell phone coverage.

It’s hard to know exactly how widespread these cell service outages were, because providers are not as transparent with the information, compared to Eversource which provides data down to the individual customer.

AT&T and Verizon are the main providers for cell service to the Cape. Both had disruptions during the storm.

For AT&T, the gap in coverage that lasted from the height of the storm on Wednesday morning, into Thursday evening.

Verizon also had a disruption but a spokesperson told me that service was generally restored for the most part after the height of the storm.

Cell phone outages were connected to damages to fiber optic networks.

AT&T leases fiber line from Open Cape, a fiber-optic internet provider.

Officials with Open Cape say the system is usually resilient because it has two main fiber lines, each carrying over a hundred fiber strands. If one of those main lines goes down, the other will work.

But on Wednesday morning, one of Open Cape’s lines was completely severed when a utility pole in Barnstable split in half. On the other line, a tree damaged part of the fiber line that happened to carry the AT&T connection. That led to the outage.

Open Cape CEO Steve Johnston says it was simply dumb luck that those particular fibers were damaged.

Open Cape had to wait for Eversource to get to the power lines before they could fix their fiber lines, which explains why service wasn’t restored until Thursday.

When there were reports of gaps in coverage, Verizon brought in a mobile cell tower to Sandwich, also known as Cell on Wheels, or COWs. They basically support networks where service is down.

AT&T was less specific in a statement to CAI, but they say they deployed equipment to help, as crews were working around the clock to make repairs.

The lack of cell coverage is concerning to public safety officials. Christopher Besse, a spokesperson for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, or MEMA, said in a statement Thursday night they were monitoring the situation.

“MEMA is aware of concerns from both public safety partners and the public about cell phone service on Cape Cod. We have shared those concerns with cell service providers on the Cape and will continue to monitor the situation as providers address capacity and coverage issues in their respective networks.”

The lack of service is also a concern in Mashpee, where fire Chief Tom Rullo says they’ve had ongoing problems with cell phone service.

He says there is a specific area in Mashpee, in and around New Seabury, with well documented gaps in service, whether during a storm or not.

Rullo said that during the storm where a tornado touched down on the Cape in 2019, that led to serious damage in and around that southern part of Mashpee.

And the Chief says that some residents without cell service and with landlines down, had to leave their homes and drive a few miles just to call 9-1-1.

And that’s with trees down, and power lines down on the street.

Verizon and AT&T did not respond with concrete ideas on how they might address concerns in the future.

In Mashpee, the town is trying to build a cell phone tower that would bring service to at least a good portion of the southern part of the town.

That’s been stalled for several years in the courts, but recently, both the neighbors that have opposed the project, and the developer, are close to a settlement. And that could mean a new tower could be built soon.

Sam Houghton left CAI in February, 2023, to become News Editor at the Martha's Vineyard Times.
He worked at CAI since the summer of 2017. Before that, he worked at the Falmouth Enterprise, where he covered local politics.