[ISN] Telecoms face 'one big mess' in Gulf Coast region

InfoSec News isn at c4i.org
Fri Sep 2 06:49:20 EDT 2005


By Matt Hamblen 
SEPTEMBER 01, 2005 

Cellular and other communication services are gradually improving in 
the Gulf Coast region more than three days after Hurricane Katrina 
blasted through, but service providers said today they still can't 
reach equipment in the flooded city of New Orleans to make needed 

Officials at Cingular Wireless LLC, Verizon Wireless, Sprint Corp. and 
BellSouth Corp. reported separately at noon today that with flooding 
and power outages in New Orleans, crews can't access cellular sites 
and switching stations for repairs. Sprint’s crews are waiting in 
Baton Rouge, La., until officials say it's safe to enter New Orleans, 
a spokesman said. 

Telecommunications have improved, however, in places such as Baton 
Rouge, Mobile, Ala. and Pensacola, Fla., company spokesmen said in 
separate interviews. 

The carriers are all relying on backup generators and in some cases 
portable generators and cellular transceivers carried on panel trucks. 
When possible, the carriers are also increasing power to rooftop cell 
sites in New Orleans to boost signals, the spokesmen said. 

Despite a massive effort with thousands of repair workers on the 
scene, the situation is obviously difficult, said Jeff Kagan, an 
independent telecommunications analyst in Atlanta. "All the carriers 
are still in survival mode," he said. "Some cities are better than 
others, but it is all one big mess. 

"I think it will be a long time before we can determine how each 
carrier is doing, but it will not be easy," Kagan said. "This is much 
worse than the 9/11 emergency. It is not just a part of a city like 
New York. It is the entire Southeast that has been devastated. 

"You have to be able to run repair trucks, but first you have to clear 
the streets," he continued. 

"Some areas can be repaired quickly, and other areas will take weeks 
and months. It is not pretty, but the carriers are working hard to get 
service back up and running." 

Only a small portion of a cellular call is carried over a wireless 
link, with cell sites usually connected to the rest of a network 
through T1 or fiber-optic connections, the spokesmen said. 

"Flooding has its most dramatic effect on land lines, such as T1s and 
fiber," said Verizon spokesman Patrick Kimball. "It's still a very 
difficult situation" in New Orleans. 

Where there is service, even in restored areas, network congestion is 
high, and land-line users have heard "all circuits are busy" or a fast 
busy signal, Bill Oliver, BellSouth's president of Lousiana 
operations, said in a statement. The wireless providers urged callers 
to use text messaging as an alternative to voice calls, partly because 
it requires less bandwidth. 

None of the carriers could predict when service will resume, but 
Oliver said "key fiber breaks" in southeastern Louisiana will take 
more resources to repair. Of about 1 million landline phones in 
Lousiana that were out of service after the deadly storm hit on 
Monday, only 130,000 have been restored so far, Oliver said. 

Various reports from New Orleans tell of desperate survivors offering 
to pay strangers to use a cell phone to reach family and friends. 

Meanwhile, a few companies in the Gulf Coast region set up 
communications backup plans in advance of Katrina, which has left 
hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people dead. 

For example, Siemens Enterprise Networks is working with a power 
utility in Mississippi that has been sending repair crews into the 
field with voice-over-Internet Protocol (VoIP) phones to make wireless 
calls via a satellite network, said Tim Perez, a Siemens director of 
sales. He wouldn't identify the utility, but said the system has been 
the main means of voice communications for utility crew supervisors in 
the field, supplemented by Research In Motion Ltd. BlackBerry 
handhelds for e-mail access. 

In this case, Siemens acted as integrator to arrange for satellite 
network bandwidth, allowing the users to connect to a Siemens IP-based 
voice switch in Atlanta. With the Siemens VoIP phones, the workers can 
make five-digit calls over a familiar device to co-workers without 
needing special codes for the satellite links, Perez said. 

"It provides business as close-to-usual under very unusual 
circumstances," he said. 

All of the wireless carriers in the region have supplied thousands of 
cell phones to be used by relief workers and emergency personnel. Even 
so, the cell phones are only as good as the network that supports 
them, said Jack Gold, an independent wireless industry analyst based 
in Westboro, Mass. 

"When stuff's under water, electrical stuff doesn't work," he said. 
"Fundamentally, you are still dealing with the laws of physics."

Gold said emergency personnel and utility workers from hundreds of 
different groups face the same lack of radio interoperability with 
their private system emergency radios that has plagued police and fire 
departments for decades. The hurricane and the resulting flooding are 
another reminder that "we're not moving fast enough" to create 
emergency radio interoperability for responding to homeland security 
and natural disaster emergencies. 

"There's a lot of work to be done with radio interoperability, since 
we have 80 years of private radio networks as an installed base," he 
said. Gold noted that Austin and its suburbs, as well as some 
communities in California, are working together to find common radios. 
But most municipalities don't have the funds to abandon their systems. 

A number of small companies is offering portable mesh networks that 
work over Wi-Fi and can be driven to disasters on short notice to 
provide a common IP platform so utilities, police, fire and other 
officials have interoperable communications, Gold said. "One universal 
IP network would help, but how you coordinate that is the problem," he 

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