Hurricane Takes Down Telecom

Restoration crippled by lack of access.

Land-line and wireless carriers alike were working to restore phone service to the areas hit by Hurricane Katrina last week, but lack of access to the hardest-hit areas was hampering efforts.

By late last week, Cingular Wireless had readied 500 emergency generators and 130,000 gallons of fuel, as well as several fleets of portable cell sites on wheels to be sent to the Gulf Coast. Cingular had coordinated 70 teams of contractors to assist in restoration efforts, said officials at the Atlanta-based company.

Verizon Wireless, of Bedminster, N.J., had made similar moves, prearranging fuel delivery to on-site generators and tuning the network to add call capacity before the storm hit.

Sprint Nextel Corp.s Emergency Response Team was deploying several RVs and satellite COLTs (cells on light trucks), as well as 3,000 Nextel walkie-talkie handsets for those emergency services customers and organizations, according to officials at the Reston, Va., company. (The company just last week acquired the assets of Gulf Coast Wireless LP, which serves some 95,000 customers in southern Louisiana and Mississippi.)

Still, there was little the carriers could do to restore service in places such as New Orleans, where much of the city remained underwater.

"We know where all the cell sites are, and we know where the macro cells are, but until we get access to the city we cant do that kind of restoration," said Ritch Blasi, a spokesperson for Cingular. "Well do it as soon as we can, but were at the mercy of Mother Nature, and we need to work with the local officials that will allow us to go in to determine everything is safe."

Some rooftop towers were operating, but officials said that without access to the city, it was hard to gauge capacity.

"I know that some friends opted to not try to use the cell phones to keep what lines were available open for the rescue workers and those who could call for rescue," said Denese Neu, a consultant who moved to Chicago from New Orleans two years ago. "If it werent for the Internet, I would have gone insane. The shocker was when I got two e-mails kicked back to me, and I realized that it was their business servers. You assume that e-mail will always be out there."

Satellite phone services have fared better, managing to stay above the fray.

"Service has not been interrupted at all," said Angie Ayala, a spokesperson for Globalstar LLC, a satellite phone company in Milpitas, Calif.

Globalstar has sent some 2,000 phones and is offering temporary free service to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Red Cross workers as well as to members of the media, Ayala said.

On the land-line side, BellSouth Corp., whose territory includes the regions hit by the hurricane, estimated that hundreds of thousands of phone lines were knocked out in Mississippi alone, but the full extent of the damage to the network remained unknown last week as many areas and facilities were inaccessible because of the massive flooding and police lockdowns.

The Atlanta-based carrier, whose service area includes Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, had beefed up its emergency preparedness plans prior to Katrinas onslaught, having weathered four hurricanes last year.

To help with the relief effort, AT&T Corp. sent a number of Emergency Communications Satellite Units to the region, one of which was being used at the end of the week by the Louisiana State Police, a spokesperson said. The carrier, also of Bedminster and slated for acquisition by SBC Communications Inc., of San Antonio, also sent Network Disaster Recovery equipment—networking equipment on wheels—to southern Louisiana and Mississippi.