Carriers Lay Out

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2006-09-18 Print this article Print

Their Plans "> Planning for the future Each carrier interviewed by eWEEK said it was preparing for emergency communications, but there was little agreement on what it meant to be ready.
For instance, Cingular Wireless has spent $17 million on ensuring it can fix a damaged network quickly.
"We have purchased emergency response equipment including [MACH (mobile access command headquarters)]. Its an office on wheels that provides satellite connectivity, data, voice and video," said Cingulars Director of Continuity Planning and Crisis Management Tina Brown, whos based in Atlanta. Cingular now has two MACH units, the larger of which can house up to 30 people. MACH 2 is a smaller unit for quick deployments. MACH 1, which is about 1,000 square feet, is built into an expandable 65-foot trailer designed to work with an external communications unit. "These two vehicles are very high-tech, military-grade communications facilities," said Brown, adding that the units can handle radio, VOIP (voice over IP) and video with capacity for 6M-bps transmission rates. The company also is taking steps to make sure that the worst problems of the past wont be repeated. "We built a switch outside of New Orleans thats not quite as vulnerable," Brown said. Brown said that Cingular is stepping up its plans to get ready for major events when theyre known in advance. "For [Tropical Storm] Ernesto, we deployed part of our equipment to Columbia, [S.C.,] to stand by to see where the storm was going to go and how intense it was going to be," she said. Brown said that the deployment included the smaller MACH 2 command unit, the emergency communications units, two equipment trailers and two RVs for sleeping. Generators were placed in Raleigh, N.C., she said. While Cingular is adding generator backup power to some of its cell sites, the company isnt going as far as some others. "Were making sure we have N+1 redundancy on our backup power," explained T-Mobiles Lonn. "Thats two times the redundancy in case our generators fail." Lonn said that T-Mobile is investing heavily in permanent generators for backup power and in backups for the telephone company backhaul. The company has had a fleet of COWs, COLTs and portable generators for some time but is continuing to invest in more, Lonn said. Verizon Wireless is taking a similar direction. "Reliability has always been in the back of our minds," said Hans Leutenegger, area vice president for network for the South, in Charlotte, N.C. "You have to be thinking reliability well before a disaster, but you have to have already done it when the disaster comes." Leutenegger said that Verizon Wireless has permanent generators at every cell site where theyre allowed, and he added the rest have portable generators. In addition to power, Verizon Wireless is making sure switch locations can withstand Category 5 hurricanes in Florida, he said. Verizon Wireless also uses two special fixed command centers, one on each coast for backup. Sprint Nextel is in an unusual position. Its the communications company of choice for many first responders because of the companys support for direct communications between handsets. This ability for the first responders that the company focuses on to communicate without the need for the wireless switches or cell sites simplifies Sprint Nextels solution but doesnt eliminate the problem of needing to provide power for its cell sites. According to Hackett, his company has made it a point to locate critical infrastructure where its safe from most threats. In addition, he said that the company has developed the ability for switches to back each other up, and to move traffic to switches that are less crowded. Sprint Nextel also keeps a fleet of COLTs and emergency generators standing by in case they lose power or cell sites. As strange as it may seem, one of the biggest challenges to preparedness for the wireless carriers is communications. But in this case, its communications with government entities; first responders; NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) such as the Red Cross, Salvation Army and others; their customers; and one another. Unfortunately, those efforts have not met with success in some cases. Each of the wireless companies tells stories of employees being prevented from restoring service because word never reached the people enforcing access or curfews. BellSouths Smith said phone service restoration after Katrina was delayed because police wouldnt let the companys technicians splice fiber after curfew. Smith said there needs to be a uniform credentialing plan. Likewise, each of the companies has said that getting help from the government is very difficult and that, even when promised, such help rarely comes through. As a result, these companies have had to resort to hiring private security organizations such as Blackwater USA for security because police or National Guard troops never arrived when promised. Meanwhile, some companies arent used to working together. There is some progress on this front as Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile both routinely open their networks to anyone who can connect with them. "During Katrina, a lot of carriers were having problems with switches," Leutenegger said. "We allowed all customers to access our network. We just turned off authentication for all of our competitors, allowing them to make calls freely." The move is part of Verizons emergency checklist. What have businesses learned from the Hurricane Katrina disaster? Click here to read more. A Cingular spokesperson told eWEEK that his companys policy was to open its network. Steve Mondul, deputy assistant to the governor of Virginia for commonwealth preparedness, just wishes companies could do a better job of communicating with the state. Mondul said wireless companies havent been planning enough for compatibility, something the government at all levels actually needs to see happen. "Compatibility is not a standard part of the planning. It needs to be institutionalized so that everyone knows that its happening," said Mondul, in Richmond, Va. While Mondul said he welcomed the efforts by the wireless companies to bring in equipment, he said that planning and coordination are still needed. "You dont want your generators on towers near major evacuation routes and major command centers to be running out of gas," he said. Mondul said that planning is critical in working with state and local governments. "It would be really good to have the company technical reps meet so we can determine critical areas and needs and address them in the planning cycle rather than in the response cycle," Mondul said. "We need to develop a conceptual plan to deal with it, rather than having no plan." Of course, the level of interaction with government varies by wireless company. Sprint Nextel, for example, has invested heavily in planning sessions with governmental entities at all levels. According to Sprint Nextels Hackett, the company routinely conducts seminars for governments, first responders and others to discuss how to create and implement a communications plan. Then the company conducts exercises to practice its responses. While many in government wish that the wireless carriers would communicate among themselves more effectively, there are limits on whats possible. For instance, too much communication among wireless carriers can be seen as collusion by antitrust authorities. In other words, two wireless carriers could reach an agreement on how to support each other in case of a major emergency and then be charged with antitrust violations for talking to each other. However, there is at least one means for wireless carriers to work together. The National Coordinating Center for Telecommunications, or NCC, was created in 1984 after the breakup of AT&T to ensure the federal governments communications needs were met. Brian Carney, manager of the NCC, which is part of the DHS, said carriers could cooperate through his group. On the local front, municipal and state governments have to find ways to work with wireless companies in their emergency operating centers and put lines of communication in place before a disaster happens. And, of course, the carriers themselves have to do as much as they can to be ready. "The reality is that its a dangerous world," said Lonn. "Im confident that weve done all we can and have a great ability to respond. Id never say were perfect, but I feel a heck of a lot better now than I did two years ago." Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, reviews and analysis on mobile and wireless computing.

Wayne Rash Wayne Rash is a Senior Analyst for eWEEK Labs and runs the magazineÔÇÖs Washington Bureau. Prior to joining eWEEK as a Senior Writer on wireless technology, he was a Senior Contributing Editor and previously a Senior Analyst in the InfoWorld Test Center. He was also a reviewer for Federal Computer Week and Information Security Magazine. Previously, he ran the reviews and events departments at CMP's InternetWeek.

He is a retired naval officer, a former principal at American Management Systems and a long-time columnist for Byte Magazine. He is a regular contributor to Plane & Pilot Magazine and The Washington Post.

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