Thirteen years ago, Hurricane Katrina was the first real test of wireless infrastructure in the U.S. handling a major disaster, and it didn’t go well. Three of the major carriers were off the air, cell towers that were still standing had no power, switching centers were under water, and the city of New Orleans was overwhelmed with emergency rescues.
Prior to Katrina in 2005, there had been other disasters, but the cellular network wasn’t as critical. Then, however, when the storm hit, we found out that it had become vital for health and welfare in many ways.
Now, in 2018, Hurricane Florence threatens to level a devastating blow to the Carolinas and the East Coast. Drawing from lessons that began over a decade ago, wireless companies are girding for battle with what’s being called a “generational storm.” This time, they’re determined not to make the mistakes of the past.
A good example comes from a statement by Verizon making note of the lifting of speed cap restrictions for all first responders in the Carolinas and Virginia. The company was heavily criticized recently for blocking critical data communications from first responders fighting the California fires.
The other major carriers have also lifted speed caps for first responders, and they’re providing extra staff at command centers and switching centers. The major carriers are pre-positioning mobile equipment so that it can be available to provide support to cell sites that are taken out by the storm, and they’ve increased capacity in areas where they know it will be needed.
“We go through a documenting process and review our learnings,” explained Joe Meyer, Sprint’s vice president of service assurance (network). “A good example was Hurricane Maria. That was the most lengthy after action review we’ve done since Katrina. We feel like we’re almost in a place where we’ve seen it all.”
Meyer said his team learned about new ways to distribute fuel to the generators that power cell sites when the commercial power is out. Sprint has taken a number of steps in advance of the storm, including fortifying switching centers and, in some cases, relocating them to elevated areas to avoid flooding, he added.
“We also learned about our Strike Team approach,” Meyer said. Previously, Sprint would depend on local employees to restore service after a disaster, but that changed after the damage caused in Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria, he said.
“In Puerto Rico, we had to assemble a team from across the country,” he said. “We now have a large group of expert employees who are our reserve force. We can put them on the ground where they’re needed.
“We have the strike team on standby and ready to go. We will have to see what the impact is before we send them in,” Meyer said.
Sprint has made a series of investments along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts in upgrading cell sites, such as adding generators, Meyer said. He added that Sprint has developed a device that he referred to as a “magic box” which provides added data capacity while not requiring dedicated backhaul. This can extend the network into areas hardest hit by a disaster and only needs access to the LTE network, he said.
The other networks have taken similar steps. T-Mobile said in its statement that it has doubled the number of generators on towers in hurricane-prone areas and added to the infrastructure on hundreds of towers.
AT&T said it has tested the generators and battery backups on its cells in the areas the hurricane could hit, and it’s deploying mobile assets in preparation for the storm.
The company also said that it’s providing employees to assist in state emergency operations centers.
As Meyer explained, Sprint is taking significant steps to protect its switching infrastructure. In its statement, Sprint said this includes installing pumps and alarms to protect against water in those centers, as well as raising the equipment platforms. Sprint is also readying its mobile assets to provide coverage to areas where equipment has been taken out by the storm.
Like the other companies, Verizon has fortified its switching centers, elevated its cell site equipment where necessary, arranged for generator fuel delivery, and deployed mobile and emergency equipment so that it’ll be ready when the disaster hits.
Meanwhile, the FCC is already in the area about to be hit by Florence so that it can enable the responses needed by the wireless carriers. “At this point, FCC staff have already been deployed to survey the radiofrequency spectrum across critical areas of South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, and our Operations Center is open 24 hours a day,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in a prepared statement. “Our staff has also reached out to broadcast associations, wireless carriers, and other telecom companies in the areas expected to be hit by Hurricane Florence. We will closely monitor communications outages data in the coming days and work to support restoration and recovery efforts.”
While it still remains to be seen how effective the wireless carriers will be in their efforts to provide service during the disaster, it appears that they’ve learned from their experiences. While there’s nothing they can do to prevent the wind and water from affecting them, they seem to be ready to overcome those challenges. Now we get to see if all of that preparation works.