Carriers Boost Efforts to Restore Service to Gulf Coast

One technology company proves to be a case study in ingenuity as others scramble to return to business as normal after Hurricane Katrina.

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.