Typhoon survivors line up Wednesday to charge their mobile phones using power outlets provided by a cellular service provider in Tacloban, Philippines.
Updated Nov. 14 at 10:30 a.m. ET.
It's hard to imagine what would happen when, in the wake of destruction, lights go dark and cellphones become useless. For many inhabitants of the Philippines this past week, that was reality.
As the storm passed through Tacloban, the sea level rose over 10 feet in a matter of minutes, not only flooding the electricity grid, but also rendering most of the generators in the city useless, The New York Times reports.
A major power plant in Batangas City lost one of its two generators due to a lightning strike, GMA News reports, and received a 150-ton transformer from Croatia to replace the one struggling to operate at full capacity.
Energy Secretary Carlos Jericho Petilla told the Philippine Star that 90 percent of power poles were downed or washed away, and said that it could take two months to restore power in typhoon-hit areas.
There are reportedly more SIM cards in use in the Philippines than there are people. But when cellphone towers and the Internet are down, a smartphone is about as useful as a rock; cellphone towers operate on electric power.
And, as in many emerging countries, the bulk of voice and data communication happens on mobile devices rather than on more storm-sturdy landlines.
On a national scale, says Yoly Crisanto of Globe Telecom, the biggest challenge was that backup communication depended on the damaged telecommunication system.
"There was a mad scramble for satellite phones when the mobile network failed," Crisanto wrote in an email. "Apparently, the old single-band radio technology has all been forgotten and thrown away with the advent of mobile phones."
The system that is so powerful when it comes to checking email and chatting long-distance, is very physically fragile.
A television reporter, Jiggy Manicad, collected messages written on scraps of paper, cardboard and paper plates from survivors in Tacloban trying to connect with loved ones. They were later broadcast and published on the network's website.
A Patchwork Of Devices
A BGAN "looks like a big fat laptop, but it's an integrated satellite dish and router. So, we can create a Wi-Fi bubble," explains Paul Margie of Télécoms Sans Frontières.
There's also something called an Instant GSM Network, which is essentially a pop-up network.
"Imagine three big boxes," says Margie. "You open them up, and in about an hour you can put up a 10-foot-tall cellphone tower transmitter that serves a refugee camp with voice service for a quarter or a third of a mile. Then you connect it to the rest of the system using a satellite dish. You can do it anywhere in the world."
Members of the Philippines' National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council are using the SatSleeve, which fits over an iPhone, turning it into a portable satellite phone.
In Tacloban, one of the most devastated areas in Visayas, free satellite call stations have been set up, allowing thousands to call friends and relatives.
The country's three mobile phone operators are providing free text messaging bundles for the next five days, and charging stations. One has announced that over 80 percent of its network has been restored. Another company announced that about 50 percent of its downed sites have been reactivated.
A coverage map for Smart Communications, which has about 60 percent of the country's mobile phone subscribers, shows that while Manila is well-serviced, hard-hit areas like Samar Island and the city of Tacloban still have minimal service.
How It All Breaks Down
Cellphones depend on a network of towers connected to hubs, much of it exposed to the elements. According to Margie, during a typhoon, they can get knocked out on a number of levels.
The rain and winds can damage the physical infrastructure that allows people to call each other. Cellphone towers can fall over like dominoes. The power grid can shut off.
Or, he says, "central offices where cellphone towers are hubbed to can be damaged. Even if a cellphone tower isn't damaged, if the place that connects it to everything else is damaged, then it doesn't work."
Then, there's overload.
"Mobile systems are designed within certain tolerances — they're not designed to work with extraordinary usage," Margie says.
More traffic requires more towers, more electricity and more money than makes sense for everyday needs. The same thing can happen in nondisaster situations, like concerts.
"That's because you'd have to have access to far more spectrum — far more radio towers," says Margie. "If everyone were to pick up their cellphone at the same time, the system wouldn't be able to handle it."
In this case, there was another problem: sustained winds blowing faster than cars driving on a highway. Yoly Cristanto of Globe Telecom, one of three providers in the Philippines, says the winds misaligned the antennae, causing weak signals. The situation was exacerbated by multiple transmission link failure and toppled, severed cables.
For Those With Internet, A Social Media Flurry
Those that can access the Internet have posted on Twitter and Facebook. Meanwhile, remote volunteers have contributed en masse to sifting through all the online information and turning it into something useful, like detailed maps of affected regions that "mostly didn't exist ... days ago, when the storm made landfall."
"Since Saturday," The Atlantic reports, "more than 400 volunteers have made nearly three quarters of a million additions to a free, online map of areas in and around the Philippines." The maps will help Red Cross workers determine where to send supplies.
Months Of Repairs Ahead
Unfortunately, the places that experienced the most destruction — like Eastern Samar and Leyte — are also the areas with the most crippled cellular coverage. In some areas, communication is possible only by radio.
The government reported Tuesday that power has been partially restored in many areas, though others remain dark. It could take months before power and telecommunications are restored to what they were before the storm.