Katrina Recovery Trudges Forward

Telecom networks slowly restored after hurricane.

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

All the nations major wireless carriers have deployed cell sites on wheels and have begun the daunting task of fixing towers. By the end of last week, Sprint Nextel had restored most of its wireless service in Alabama, more than 80 percent of its wireless service 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. 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, Miss., was still suffering. T-Mobile USA Inc. reported that service was largely 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 CTIA, urging him to encourage 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 the Consumer & Governmental Affairs Bureau issued a mandate that all wireless spectrum licensees issue a grace period to affected customers.

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

The local telephone company, Atlanta-based BellSouth Corp., said that it could cost as much as $600 million and take as long as six months to completely restore service. Restoration efforts have been impeded by the difficulties that technicians and fuel suppliers face 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 spokesperson.

"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 at DirectNIC, a free hosting service and domain registration division of New Orleans-based Intercosmos Media Group Inc., Barnett and four 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 diesel-powered generators.

The generators "power the data center, and from there we can run power cords to any place," Barnett said in an online conversation.

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, said Barnett, who chronicled in his blog the small companys experience.

Despite the unlikely success in retaining power via its generators, DirectNIC nearly went down anyway when all but one of its providers lost their OC-3 connections. Even as general pandemonium and despair reigned in the city, things started to look up for DirectNIC. By Sept. 5, all four of its OC-3 connections were available as power started coming on in a few buildings in the business district, according to Barnett.

Microsoft Corp. is doing its part as well, bringing the power of its .Net technology to the Hurricane Katrina relief effort by delivering a system to help locate people displaced or missing since the hurricane.

A group of technologists at the Redmond, Wash., company developed a Web site called KatrinaSafe, as well as supporting applications to help Katrina evacuees reach out to relatives and friends and also enable families to locate people.