By Matt Hamblen
SEPTEMBER 01, 2005
Cellular and other communication services are gradually improving in
the Gulf Coast region more than three days after Hurricane Katrina
blasted through, but service providers said today they still can't
reach equipment in the flooded city of New Orleans to make needed
Officials at Cingular Wireless LLC, Verizon Wireless, Sprint Corp. and
BellSouth Corp. reported separately at noon today that with flooding
and power outages in New Orleans, crews can't access cellular sites
and switching stations for repairs. Sprint=92s crews are waiting in
Baton Rouge, La., until officials say it's safe to enter New Orleans,
a spokesman said.
Telecommunications have improved, however, in places such as Baton
Rouge, Mobile, Ala. and Pensacola, Fla., company spokesmen said in
The carriers are all relying on backup generators and in some cases
portable generators and cellular transceivers carried on panel trucks.
When possible, the carriers are also increasing power to rooftop cell
sites in New Orleans to boost signals, the spokesmen said.
Despite a massive effort with thousands of repair workers on the
scene, the situation is obviously difficult, said Jeff Kagan, an
independent telecommunications analyst in Atlanta. "All the carriers
are still in survival mode," he said. "Some cities are better than
others, but it is all one big mess.
"I think it will be a long time before we can determine how each
carrier is doing, but it will not be easy," Kagan said. "This is much
worse than the 9/11 emergency. It is not just a part of a city like
New York. It is the entire Southeast that has been devastated.
"You have to be able to run repair trucks, but first you have to clear
the streets," he continued.
"Some areas can be repaired quickly, and other areas will take weeks
and months. It is not pretty, but the carriers are working hard to get
service back up and running."
Only a small portion of a cellular call is carried over a wireless
link, with cell sites usually connected to the rest of a network
through T1 or fiber-optic connections, the spokesmen said.
"Flooding has its most dramatic effect on land lines, such as T1s and
fiber," said Verizon spokesman Patrick Kimball. "It's still a very
difficult situation" in New Orleans.
Where there is service, even in restored areas, network congestion is
high, and land-line users have heard "all circuits are busy" or a fast
busy signal, Bill Oliver, BellSouth's president of Lousiana
operations, said in a statement. The wireless providers urged callers
to use text messaging as an alternative to voice calls, partly because
it requires less bandwidth.
None of the carriers could predict when service will resume, but
Oliver said "key fiber breaks" in southeastern Louisiana will take
more resources to repair. Of about 1 million landline phones in
Lousiana that were out of service after the deadly storm hit on
Monday, only 130,000 have been restored so far, Oliver said.
Various reports from New Orleans tell of desperate survivors offering
to pay strangers to use a cell phone to reach family and friends.
Meanwhile, a few companies in the Gulf Coast region set up
communications backup plans in advance of Katrina, which has left
hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people dead.
For example, Siemens Enterprise Networks is working with a power
utility in Mississippi that has been sending repair crews into the
field with voice-over-Internet Protocol (VoIP) phones to make wireless
calls via a satellite network, said Tim Perez, a Siemens director of
sales. He wouldn't identify the utility, but said the system has been
the main means of voice communications for utility crew supervisors in
the field, supplemented by Research In Motion Ltd. BlackBerry
handhelds for e-mail access.
In this case, Siemens acted as integrator to arrange for satellite
network bandwidth, allowing the users to connect to a Siemens IP-based
voice switch in Atlanta. With the Siemens VoIP phones, the workers can
make five-digit calls over a familiar device to co-workers without
needing special codes for the satellite links, Perez said.
"It provides business as close-to-usual under very unusual
circumstances," he said.
All of the wireless carriers in the region have supplied thousands of
cell phones to be used by relief workers and emergency personnel. Even
so, the cell phones are only as good as the network that supports
them, said Jack Gold, an independent wireless industry analyst based
in Westboro, Mass.
"When stuff's under water, electrical stuff doesn't work," he said.
"Fundamentally, you are still dealing with the laws of physics."
Gold said emergency personnel and utility workers from hundreds of
different groups face the same lack of radio interoperability with
their private system emergency radios that has plagued police and fire
departments for decades. The hurricane and the resulting flooding are
another reminder that "we're not moving fast enough" to create
emergency radio interoperability for responding to homeland security
and natural disaster emergencies.
"There's a lot of work to be done with radio interoperability, since
we have 80 years of private radio networks as an installed base," he
said. Gold noted that Austin and its suburbs, as well as some
communities in California, are working together to find common radios.
But most municipalities don't have the funds to abandon their systems.
A number of small companies is offering portable mesh networks that
work over Wi-Fi and can be driven to disasters on short notice to
provide a common IP platform so utilities, police, fire and other
officials have interoperable communications, Gold said. "One universal
IP network would help, but how you coordinate that is the problem," he
Sept 16-18th, 2005
San Diego, California