Getting voice mail when cell tower is down?
April 5, 2010 9:37 AM   Subscribe

If a cell tower is down because of sever weather / power outage, would I still be able to get to a person's voice mail when I call their cell phone?

My SO and I are in a long distance relationship and yesterday we got in a tiff, the details of which are not important. After cooling down a bit, I tried on multiple times to call her cell phone over a period of about 5 or 6 hours. Of the nine calls that I made, all of them went to voice mail, until her voice mail was full. This morning I got an email from her apologizing for not calling me back yesterday because all afternoon / evening she didn't have power as a result of those wonderful storms that the Midwest is known for and therefore she couldn't call me back.

I did some research and found that unless the cell tower has back up power, the cell tower would go down in a power outage and presumably affect reception. So I guess that my main question is if the cell tower were down and my SO couldn't call me because of that reason, would I still be able to call her cell phone, have it ring multiple times and eventually get her voice mail? I would assume that if she can't call out because the cell tower is down, I would just get a message saying something about my call not being able to go through at the current time.

Unfortunately I have a feeling that she is not being entirely truthful with me about what happened yesterday because of the nature of our argument. I'm just trying to make sure that her explanation of what happened yesterday is rational. She's working a 12 hour shift today, so I won't be able to talk with her about this for another 6 or 7 hours. But this will definitely come up in the conversation and I want to make sure that I have all of my ducks in a row. Thanks AskMe.
posted by friendlyjuan to Technology (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
Voice mail is a function of the central cell system. It doesn't require the tower. The situation you're describing is exactly the same as it would be if the cell system were operating normally but your SO's phone was turned off. You'd go to voice mail, and that would work. The voice mail message would wait until your SO became able to receive it.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:40 AM on April 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


Oy, it doesn't sound like you two are having a very good time.

Maybe her phone battery was out and she didn't have power to recharge it?
posted by bubukaba at 9:40 AM on April 5, 2010


Voice mail is a wholly separate system and if the call can't connect for any reason then it will go to voicemail. It doesn't matter whether her closest tower is offline or whether she put the phone into a blender. If the network can't connect to the phone, you get vmail.
posted by GuyZero at 9:40 AM on April 5, 2010


But if the network can't connect to the phone, wouldn't my call go directly to voice mail instead of ringing like it normally would when the phone is on and getting a signal, and then going to voice mail? If the phone had no signal, why was it ringing like normal? Shouldn't it have gone straight to voice mail?
posted by friendlyjuan at 9:48 AM on April 5, 2010


I would assume there would be a period where it would be trying to locate the unit to make it ring. I know I often hear my gf's ring through the earpiece 2-3 times before it rings in the house. (When she can't find it and we're looking for it.)

Sounds to me like you're looking for a reason to not trust her.
posted by TomMelee at 9:52 AM on April 5, 2010 [7 favorites]


There is too much variability in terms of carriers and cellphones and service structures to definitely say "when the phone is off, incoming calls go immediately to voice mail" is a universally true statement.
posted by mmascolino at 9:59 AM on April 5, 2010


As a datapoint, I was once in a situation where way too many people trying to make phonecalls overloaded the cell towers such that there was effectively no cell service for anyone. When I attempted outgoing calls, it would ring a couple times and then do the fast busy-signal noise and not go through, and when people attempted to call me, I was told that it rang for them as normal before going to my voicemail, though of course it didn't ring for me. I then was able to pick up these voicemails later.

I don't know if a tower down due to power outage would have the same effect as a tower down due to overloading, but there's your anecdotal evidence in her favor.
posted by brainmouse at 10:12 AM on April 5, 2010


The cell network may know that the phone is off (i.e. hasn't reported in for some time) but it also knows that it may be wrong. So it's going to try to ring the phone. Otherwise people will complain of not getting calls when they should.

You can easily test this yourself. Find someone who has the same mobile provider as your girlfriend, have them turn off their cell, wait a few minutes, call 'em up and count the rings.

Of course, there may still be regional variations, as a national network such as AT&T's is made up of what used to be a lot of independent providers.
posted by kindall at 10:20 AM on April 5, 2010


1) Your gf's VM (and anyone's VM for that matter) are not stored in the local cell tower. Yes, you can leave VM even if the local tower loses power. You can even have someone travel around the world and leave them VM, even though their phone is unplugged and well beyond the range of any cell towers their carrier may have. They can check their VM from any other phone.

2) Just because you hear ringing doesn't mean that the phone is actually ringing.

3) What the hell were you doing leaving so many VMs that her VM filled up?

4) It sounds like by all your ducks in a row, you need to explain to her that you don't trust her and you spent the time when she was at work asking strangers on the internet to back you up.
posted by Brian Puccio at 10:23 AM on April 5, 2010 [8 favorites]


While normally VM is instant if the cell is out of service, I've had times where it'll ring then go to voicemail even if the phone is off/out of touch. I think that happens because the phone is being located. I think Nextel has the "Please wait while we locate the nextel subscriber" voice prompt. Other carriers don't do that... they must just make a ringing noise, since that's what we expect.

If I call my wife's phone while we're in the same room, it rings a few times before her phone picks up. Again, normally VM is instant if her phone is off, but not always.

Good luck - hope the trust builds back up and you guys work this out.
posted by jumpfroggy at 10:38 AM on April 5, 2010


Thanks for all of the answers so far and please keep them coming if anyone else out there has any other knowledge to add.

Couple more points and then I'll step out of the thread.

1) When I got her email this morning telling me that because power was out she couldn't use her cell phone, that didn't sound logical to me based on the fact that it rang like normal on my end all day yesterday. I asked my question because my understanding of how cell phones work didn't jibe with the explanation that she gave me of why she couldn't call. It was my understanding that if a cell phone didn't have a signal then any calls made to the cell phone would go directly to voice mail. I'm actually glad to hear that my understanding is probably incorrect and she was telling me the truth.

2) Speaking of the truth, I was skeptical of her explanation because the fight we got into concerned a lie she told me yesterday morning about her ex boyfriend. This is a sensitive topic for us because she still lives with him (as strictly platonic roommates) but she lied to me about this by omission at the beginning of our relationship so it's a touchy subject. She also has a tendency to avoid this topic because it's painful, so I thought that maybe she was avoiding talking to me because she didn't want to have the discussion. I left it all out because the ex boyfriend / roommate situation is a whole 'nother AskMe question and this one was supposed to be mainly about how cell phones work in the situation of a power outage.

Thanks again for the replies and keep them coming if you have anything else to add to the discussion.
posted by friendlyjuan at 11:07 AM on April 5, 2010


You can easily test this yourself. Find someone who has the same mobile provider as your girlfriend, have them turn off their cell, wait a few minutes, call 'em up and count the rings.

This method of testing will not work. When you turn a cell phone off in the normal fashion, the phone will inform the network that it is shutting off. This usually results in the network sending incoming calls directly to voicemail, since it has been explicitly informed by the phone that the phone will be unreachable.

A better testing method would be to pull the battery from the phone while it is turned on. This would be a closer simulation of what would happen if a tower went out of service, because the network would be unable to reach the phone without having been informed that the phone will turn off.

Nevertheless, as mmascolino said, there really is too much variability even within a single operator's mobile network to make the ringing-or-not-ringing behavior a reliable indicator of the phone's registration status with the network.
posted by Juffo-Wup at 11:29 AM on April 5, 2010


A better testing method would be to pull the battery from the phone while it is turned on. This would be a closer simulation of what would happen if a tower went out of service, because the network would be unable to reach the phone without having been informed that the phone will turn off. - Juffo-Wup
Could this be why people on Korean dramas are always pulling out their cell batteries when they want to be unavailable?
posted by nprigoda at 11:38 AM on April 5, 2010


3) What the hell were you doing leaving so many VMs that her VM filled up?
This.

4) It sounds like by all your ducks in a row, you need to explain to her that you don't trust her and you spent the time when she was at work asking strangers on the internet to back you up.
And this.

This is a sensitive topic for us because she still lives with him (as strictly platonic roommates) but she lied to me about this by omission at the beginning of our relationship so it's a touchy subject.
Seriously? This is not good.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 11:44 AM on April 5, 2010


One last thing that I forgot to mention and I swear that this will be my last post. I didn't leave so many voice mails that her in box filled up. In fact, I left a total of zero messages because she never listens to them and just lets them pile up until her voice mail is full. This is not the first time this has happened.
posted by friendlyjuan at 12:05 PM on April 5, 2010


1) you are being paranoid

2) It depends on the cell phone provider. But generally national cell phone providers have regional platforms where they route calls that are supposed to go to voice mail. An individual tower being out would have no effect on the phone getting voice mail. For instance, I have a national carrier, I have horrible reception at my desk. If someone calls they usually get my voice mail, they leave a message at say 12:00 Noon, my phone may not know about it until hours later when I get a signal again. Even then, the phone may take a few hours to realize it needs to check the network and download the voicemail (it's an Iphone)

3) Local Cell phone companies suck. I know this because I work for a company that sends out massive amounts of phone calls in the case of an emergency or other things. We often time overload the networks of some small towns we send to. I have to explain to upset people why their phone calls didn't get delivered.

In one case we discovered that if we sent more than 200 calls to one local cell provider, and about %25 of those went to voice mail, then we would crash their voice mail platform (not used to the volume). Unfortunately this happened during high call load so no calls were actually getting to the phones. It turns out that if the voicemail goes down while the general network is down then the call will have no where to go, the network literally gives up and does nothing (general system failure code, which is useless... for us at least).

Result: No one got the call, those with phone off never even knew they were called, no one got the voicemail. Everyone hates everyone.

That is just one example of local cell phone suck... each local carrier sucks in their own special way.
posted by DetonatedManiac at 12:17 PM on April 5, 2010


But if the network can't connect to the phone, wouldn't my call go directly to voice mail instead of ringing like it normally would when the phone is on and getting a signal, and then going to voice mail? If the phone had no signal, why was it ringing like normal? Shouldn't it have gone straight to voice mail?

What you're hearing is called a "comfort tone", intended to reassure you that the system hasn't locked up. It's produced by the cell system and it doesn't mean the phone is ringing.

The cell system doesn't know for sure that the phone is off. When there's an incoming call, if it doesn't know what the phone's situation is, it transmits a message over its whole system that commands the phone to register, which means that the phone turns its transmitter on briefly and announces its position. If the phone responds, then the cell system knows what cell sector it's in and will proceed to set the call up.

But if the phone doesn't respond, there's a timeout before the system gives up and decides the phone isn't available. Then, and only then, will it route the call to voice mail. And during that entire time, it will produce the comfort tone to you so that you won't worry.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:20 PM on April 5, 2010


I didn't leave so many voice mails that her in box filled up. In fact, I left a total of zero messages because she never listens to them and just lets them pile up until her voice mail is full.
If you weren't leaving any messages and the inbox filled up anyway, then other people were leaving voicemails. That's a decent indicator that either she truly didn't have service, or you weren't the only one being ignored.
posted by indyz at 1:48 PM on April 5, 2010


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