If you had trouble getting a signal on your AT&T phone the night of the tsunami, you weren’t alone.

Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa said county emergency officials were unable to coordinate their responses on their new iPhones and had to resort to their old walkie-talkie system, according to KITV.

AT&T representative Courtney Pendleton has repeatedly said that higher-than-normal phone usage in the hours after the tsunami warning was announced clogged the network.

“During the tsunami warning late Thursday, March 10 and early Friday, March 11 Hawaii time, we saw call volumes of 5-6 times normal levels,” Pendleton told Civil Beat via e-mail Tuesday.

The night of the warning, the company says it put out communications tips [docx] that included keeping non-emergency calls to a minimum and text messaging instead.

Failure to follow those tips may have caused some congestion, but the outages may have been extreme for Hawaii residents due to bad timing.

In the early morning hours of March 11 Apple pushed out their iOS 4.3 update for iPhone and iPad, to coincide with the availability of the iPad 2. The update included new support for their “Personal Hotspot” feature, which AT&T refers to as “tethering.”

A week and a half later, it’s still unclear if AT&T also pushed out a network update to its own systems in anticipation of the iOS 4.3 release and if such an update could have exacerbated the congestion on AT&T’s network.

Pendleton has repeatedly refused to answer questions on the matter and has stood by the company’s official stance that it “experienced a high-level of traffic which caused network congestion.”

“AT&T realizes the important role that communications play in an emergency situation — and we’re committed to keeping customers connected,” Pendleton wrote Thursday.

AT&T says it invested more than $75 million in its wireless network in Hawaii between 2007 and 2009. In February 2010, the company projected capital investment of $18 billion to $19 billion nationwide in 2010.

The company announced this week it plans to purchase T-Mobile and its cell phone towers and infrastructure for $39 billion. Pendleton told KITV the acquisition “will help increase network capacity” even as industry experts said the bandwidth comes with T-Mobile’s customers and is unlikely to dramatically improve coverage capacity.

Arakawa expressed frustration with the service during the natural disaster.

“I was never told that there was a potential for challenge,” Arakawa told KITV. “We just assume when we buy a service it is going to work when you need it.”

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