Carriers Struggle to Restore Service After Katrina

Updated: Without physical access to flooded areas, the best-laid plans of telcos can't guarantee service; some users turn to text messaging.

Land-line and wireless carriers alike are preparing to restore phone service to the areas struck by Hurricane Katrina this week, but lack of access to the hardest-hit areas has been making actual restoration impossible for the time being.

By Wednesday, 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 company.

Verizon Wireless, of Beminster, N.J., 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, as well as 3,000 Nextel Walkie Talkie handsets for those emergency services customers and organizations, according to officials at the Overland Park, Kan., company.

(The company just last week acquired the assets of Gulf Coast Wireless Ltd., which serves some 95,000 customers in southern Louisiana and Mississippi.)

/zimages/6/28571.gifRead more here about what communications providers are doing to help restore service in the areas hit by Hurricane Katrina.

But as of Wednesday, there was not much any of the carriers could do to restore service in New Orleans and other coastal towns that are still under water.

"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," Blasi said.

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

Carriers recommended that customers send text messages, which were getting through better than phone calls were.

"I havent been able to talk to anyone with a 504 [Louisiana area code] number," said Obie Philbrook, a personal trainer in Yarmouth, Maine and a former resident of New Orleans. "I have been able to text-message back and forth with a couple of friends, but I havent been able to get anyone on the phone."

But it isnt always clear whether text messages are getting through.

"Ive sent tons of text messages to my mom, but she probably has no idea how to use text messaging," said Miles Lewis, a financial analyst in New York who grew up in New Orleans and has relatives all over the Gulf Coast. "Her batteries might have died, too."

Lewis said his mother and grandmother opted to stay in Pass Christian, Miss., a small town 13 miles west of Gulfport, which was devastated by the storm. He hadnt been able to reach them since Monday, he said; his phone calls werent going through at all.

Satellite phone services have fared well, which is helpful to the government workers and members of the media who use them.

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

/zimages/6/28571.gifNot letting a hurricane stop the presses, a New Orleans paper takes to the Web. Click here to read more.

Globalstar has sent some 2,000 phones to FEMA (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.

As company repair teams began trying to get through the ravaged areas of Mississippi and Louisiana to assess the physical damage to their facilities, early restoration efforts focused on hospitals and emergency operations, according to Mike Walker, a BellSouth spokesperson. In many areas, phone service would not be available until after power was restored.

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.

Technicians from other telecommunications companies were "on loan" to BellSouth to help in the restoration efforts, the company said, and even while the hurricane made its way northward through Mississippi and Alabama, BellSouth was busy restoring service in Florida, where the storm affected approximately 400,000 lines.

Calls carried by interconnecting telephone companies also experienced interruptions during and following the storm. AT&Ts voice network had "some minor call blocking," most of which was a result of outages in the local telcos facilities, said Jim Byrne, an AT&T spokesperson, adding that AT&Ts Internet and data networks remained in service without interruption.

To help out with the relief effort, AT&T 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, Byrne said. The Bedminster, N.J.-based carrier, which is slated for acquisition by SBC Communications Inc., also sent Network Disaster Recovery equipment—networking equipment on wheels—to southern Louisiana and Mississippi.

While they wait for their phone service to be restored, those who can do so are depending on the Web.

"I have used the Internet as a source for getting news locally—meaning New Orleans—as well as for getting in touch with friends," said Denese Neu, a consultant who moved from New Orleans to Chicago two years ago.

"The evacuated whose cell phones are useless have logged on at Internet cafes and hotels to get the word to friends and gather where people are. Unfortunately, many have e-mail addresses at their businesses. Those servers are down so the e-mail cant go through or be obtained. I never thought I would be so thankful for Yahoo, MSN and AOL!" Neu said.

Editors Note: This story was updated to correct information given by a company representative.

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