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Irene Wreaks Havoc on East Coast Communications

Some of the affected regions report lost or spotty cell phone signals, impairing the spread of emergency information.

As Hurricane Irene starts to move north along the East Coast of the United States, the first reports of its affects on communications systems are coming in.

The Federal Communications Commission on Saturday activated the Disaster Information Reporting System, a online reporting tool that helps the agency understand the scope and location of disruptions to communications. So far the damage is minimal, but the full scope may not be clear until the beginning of next week after Irene clears the coastline.

Coastal North Carolina seems to be the most affected, with many of the 130 cellular sites in that region currently inoperable, Betanews reports. Another 215 may fail soon however, as they are running on backup power with power outages widespread. Wireline customers are also affected: the FCC says 8000 are out in North Carolina, and another 4000 in Virginia.

The hardest-hit location was Carteret County in southeastern North Carolina. That locale includes Cape Lookout, where the eye of Irene made landfall on Saturday around sunrise.

Amid all the bad news is some good news: public safety communications are so far reporting no disruption or outages. But if you're out of power or the cell tower's down, that's not going to do a lot of good if you can't make the call out.

Either way, this is only the beginning of what could become a serious nightmare for communications utilities as Irene moves north. The sheer size of the storm -- roughly the size of Europe by some accounts -- and the fact that it is hitting the "megalopolis," means the effects will be magnified. And cell phones -- especially smartphones -- are otherwise a way for people in the affected area to

If a direct hit is taken in this region -- now increasingly likely -- it could mean massive disruption. It could also mean extended periods of time without communications in hardest hit areas due to the scope of repair work necessary. Officials have been warning about this for days, so those most at risk know of the risk in "riding it out."

Often, people focus on the risk to life and limb from property damage, but being cut off from any kind of communication can be just as dangerous. That's why its so important to get out of harm's way when you're told to, because you may not be able to make the call for help when you most need it.

For more tech news and commentary, follow Ed on Twitter at @edoswald, on Facebook or on Google+ as well as Today @ PCWorld.

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