Moments after the Virginia earthquake hit Tuesday afternoon, Kafi D'Ambrosio tried calling her daughter's day care but couldn't get through. So instead, she turned to Facebook.
The 38-year-old Hamilton resident posted a message on her day-care provider's Facebook page: "Can't reach you on the phone. Are the kids okay? Is Sofia okay?" Within minutes, the provider responded over Facebook: "Yes, everyone okay. The kids are laying down for their nap. Are you okay?"
As Marylanders reached for their cellphones to communicate with friends and family, they found it easier to get peace of mind through text messages, emails and Facebook updates than through calls. D'Ambrosio was among many in Maryland who found that Internet and data services on their cellphones and computers functioned well, while phone calling over land lines and wireless networks was spotty at best.
Telecommunications companies reported a deluge from thousands of users who tried placing calls in the minutes after the quake, and it took a couple of hours before call volumes returned to normal levels. During times of extremely high activity, overloaded phone companies have an easier time passing along short bursts of information — like Twitter updates — than connecting callers.
None of the major wireless telecommunications firms — AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile — reported damage to their cellphone networks.
"There was significant network volume for some customers in parts of the East for approximately 20 minutes after the tremors," said Melanie Ortel, a spokeswoman for Verizon Wireless.
Facebook was able to withstand millions of users' flocking to its site to post status updates about the earthquake. Andrew Noyes, a Facebook spokesman, wrote on Twitter that the term "earthquake" appeared in status updates for nearly 3 million users shortly after the quake.
Most of the wireless telecommunications firms, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, advised customers to use text messages and e-mails rather than voice calls for communication.
Telecommunications experts said that voice calls are handled differently from text messages and Internet traffic, such as emails or messages on Twitter and Facebook.
Voice calls require dedicated one-to-one connections between two callers on a network. But traffic over the Internet, such as an email or a tweet, is broken into small packets of data, sent in pieces and then digitally reassembled into a cohesive whole for the recipient.
In general, voice calls require more bandwidth, while Internet communications and text messages are less intensive, said Mark Titus, a vice president at TeleCommunication Systems Inc., a mobile wireless technology company in Annapolis.
"Traditional voice calls require more network resources," Titus said.
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