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Earthquake plays havoc with East Coast cell networks

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Newscom

(Read caption) 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.

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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.)

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