Carriers Boost Efforts to Restore Service to Gulf Coast

By Carmen Nobel  |  Posted 2005-09-08

Carriers Boost Efforts to Restore Service to Gulf Coast

More than a week and a half after Hurricane Katrina struck, wireless carriers were making good headway in restoring service, but the regions landline communications infrastructure, particularly in New Orleans, remained largely in tatters.

All the nations major wireless carriers have deployed COWs (cellsites on wheels) and have begun the daunting task of fixing towers.

As of Thursday, Sprint Nextel had restored most of its wireless service in Alabama, more than 80 percent in Mississippi, and more than 60 percent in Louisiana, said officials at the Reston, Va., company.

Verizon Wireless Inc. reported having restored 300 of the 400 cell sites that Katrina knocked out.

Its service was back to normal in much of Alabama and the Florida Gulf coast.

Biloxi and Gulfport, Miss., still had limited service, but the company had installed COWs to boost coverage at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi and at FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency)s relief distribution center in Gulfport.

Service in the New Orleans suburbs was almost back to normal, said officials at the Bedminster, N.J., company. New Orleans had limited coverage.

Cingular Wireless had restored service in Mobile, Ala., and Jackson, Miss., and most of Biloxi, Miss., said officials in Atlanta. Service in New Orleans and Gulfport was still suffering.

T-Mobile reported that service was close to back to normal, even in New Orleans.

Ironically, in the midst of the restoration efforts there were reports of hurricane victims getting cut off because they hadnt paid their wireless bills.

On Sept. 6, several members of Congress sent a letter to the president of the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, urging him to urge carriers to extend grace periods.

"Unfortunately, there have been reports of wireless customers from the disaster areas being disconnected during this desperate time because they are unable to pay the bills," the letter said.

The next day, The Wireless Telecommunications Bureau and Consumer & Governmental Affairs Bureau issued a mandate that all wireless spectrum licensees issue at least a grace period to affected customers.

None of the major carriers admitted to deliberately cutting anyone off, but all made concessions.

For example, Sprint Nextel said it would issue automatic credits for monthly service and offer free roaming and text messaging to customers who lived in the hurricanes path.

Verizon Wireless stopped all past-due notices to Katrina victims, issued airtime credits and date extensions to prepaid callers, and stopped automatic payments from customers bank accounts.

About a half-million businesses and residences were still without power, rendering cell phones largely useless for those who had yet to evacuate the affected areas.

"Without electricity—and that went out very quickly—there was no charging the cell phones," said Carolyn Krack, a retired secretary who spent most of her week holed up in her New Orleans home in a section of the French Quarter that weathered the storm much better than the rest of the city did.

More than a million landline phone lines remained out of service toward the end of last week.

The local telephone company, Atlanta-based BellSouth Corp. said that it could cost as much as $600 million and take up to six months to completely restore service.

Next Page: Difficulties impede restoration efforts.

Difficulties Impede Restoration Efforts

Restoration efforts were impeded by the difficulties that technicians and fuel suppliers faced in reaching damaged facilities because of the flooding, massive destruction and lawlessness.

The companys trucks delivering fuel for generators in central offices were accompanied last week by armed guards, according to a BellSouth spokesman.

"Hanging on by a thread" is how one eyewitness, Michael Barnett, described New Orleans telecommunications and IT condition to eWEEK late last week.

Crisis manager Barnett at DirectNIC, a free hosting service and domain registration division of New Orleans-based Intercosmos Media Group Inc., and four of Barnetts colleagues managed to keep the operation in business without interruption.

Located on the 10th and 11th floors of a high-rise building—coincidentally, near BellSouths main office—in the central business district, DirectNIC remained operational in large part because of its employees ingenuity in securing fuel for the companys own diesel-powered generators.

Most local businesses were cut off from the Internet when they lost power. The generators "power the data center, and from there we can run power cords to anyplace," Barnett told eWEEK via instant messaging.

The company still did not have phone service as of Thursday.

"We have a balcony on [the 11th floor] that we can get to, but we sleep in the data center."

Barnett, who has a military background, prepared for the storm with a stockpile of food and water, a gun and a supply of diesel fuel expected to last 10 days.

But powering the generators soon became a paramount concern, and the company first called on an employees uncle with "some kind of huge boat" to donate his reserve, according to Barnett, who chronicled on his Weblog the small companys experience.

Click here to read more about a former Army soldier who is posting a blog from within New Orleans.

Despite the unlikely success in retaining power via its own generators, DirectNIC nearly went down anyway because it relies on service providers for connectivity to the Internet.

By Sept. 1, when the city was submerged by floods, all but one of its providers lost their OC3 connections.

"TelCove [Inc., in Canonsburg, Pa.] was the one that stayed up," Barnett said.

Donny Simonton, DirectNIC senior vice president, told eWEEK via e-mail that the other two providers, BellSouth and Broadwing Communications Inc., lost OC3 connectivity because of power issues.

Barnetts blog provides a personal, eyewitness account of the citys deterioration, the flooding, the looting, the gunfire and the police presence.

On Sept. 4, he wrote: "Some guy wearing khaki fatigues and black vests which say Police on them have their faces covered in black ski masks and are touting M4-A1s with front hand grips—like theyre some kind of Delta Force operators waiting to hit the tire house. Theyre guarding the four corners around the Bell South building for crying out loud. And what, they need secret identities? Come on."

Even as general pandemonium and despair grew worse in the city, things started to look up for DirectNIC.

By Sept. 5, all four of its OC3 connections were available as power started coming on in a few buildings in the business district, according to Barnett.

By the end of last week, the exhausted DirectNIC team was turning its attention toward helping customers get back on their feet.

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