Earthquake Drops Voice Calls In ‘Mass-Calling Event,’ But Data Gets Through

Very little damage was reported following Tuesday’s 5.8-magnitude earthquake in Virginia that was felt up and down the East Coast, but the phones sure seemed broken. The four major wireless carriers in the U.S. reported disruptions to their voice services following what one called a “mass-calling event,” leaving text messages and wireless data services as one’s best bet for letting Mom know that everything was fine.

For at least an hour or two after the earthquake struck at 1:51 p.m. Eastern *Time*, trying to make voice calls from major cities on the Eastern Seaboard was pointless. Even the regular landline phones didn’t work at our New York offices, while friends and family in other parts of New York, Baltimore, and Washington D.C. reported problems with voice calls. However, mobile data services didn’t appear to miss a beat, allowing bewildered East Coasters to amuse their West Coast Twitter contacts with reports that they had felt the earth move.

The CTIA wireless industry trade group issued a statement on the aftereffects of the quake:

The industry’s infrastructure appears to be intact, but because many wireless consumers are using the networks, we are experiencing higher than normal traffic. In these high volume instances, there can be delays. We encourage people to send text messages and emails to contact their loved ones until volume returns to normal.

Sprint (NYSE: S) called it “a temporary mass calling event,” on its Twitter feed, while other carriers reported similar problems with voice calls. Yet mobile networks in general seemed to ride out the huge spike in traffic, with several contacts reporting business-as-usual performance from mobile data services on their phones and wireless hot spots.

A similar pattern was seen in Japan following that country’s devastating March earthquake, which is about the only comparison that can be made between that horrific event and the mild shaking that titillated the Metro Atlantic region. But it suggests a simple rule for disaster (or near-disaster) communications: mobile Internet services are probably the most effective way to reach the outside world.