Carriers, contractors assessing communications restoration needs of pummeled Gulf Coast
August 31, 2005 -- Although initial reports reveal that numerous government, broadcast and cell towers collapsed in the Gulf Coast storm ravaged area from Hurricane Katrina, the catastrophic damage to infrastructure has shut down telecommunications in many areas of Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi.
Federal, state and community communications directors are trying to assess the damage but are having difficulty reaching their communications facilities. They are also in the process of planning and setting up temporary communications systems to help in their search and rescue missions. Cellular carriers are working with these agencies, but they too are unsure as to the extent of damage and the amount of time it will take to provide minimal service. Motorola has mobilized a 700MHz trunking system to New Orleans.
Carrier assessment teams were dispatched today to the state's outlying areas to identify their rebuilding needs. T-Mobile, Sprint Nextel and others have halted ongoing projects within these devastated states and are contacting local telecommunications contractors to see if they're still capable of providing services. Resources are also being located in neighboring states that will be required in the massive rebuilding effort.
Hundreds of rooftop, billboard and other non-tower locations have been destroyed by wind damage with antennas and BTS equipment blown off the structures. Some sites are underneath the rubble of collapsed buildings. Transmission lines and panel antennas were ripped off of existing towers and those that remained are severely damaged.
In New Orleans and other cities, switches were compromised or demolished and cell site equipment remains submerged. Although some sites had equipment located at ground level, most sites had the transceiver equipment elevated on 3' to 6' platforms, a height that was dwarfed by flooding that exceeded 15' in many areas. A great number of cell site UPS systems in the affected areas were destroyed and those that remained unscathed have now run out of fuel. The rebuilding challenge will be a logistical and engineering nightmare.
With overburdened landline circuits and non-existent cell phone coverage in many areas, communications restoration is a top priority of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and state and local agencies. Unfortunately, some tower erection and maintenance companies are located in areas that suffered damage.
A couple of antenna and line companies have their offices in New Orleans and were forced to evacuate the area. Louisiana Governor Gov. Kathleen Blanco said today that Army engineers struggled without success to plug New Orleans' breached levees with giant sandbags, and there was no choice but to abandon the flooded city. She said all people must evacuate within the next two days.
Multiple tower maintenance and construction companies in the heaviest hit areas do not have any phone service. Tower owners, carriers and government agencies are reaching out to neighboring states for resources of dedicated crews.
Data Cell Systems, Inc., a Gulf Coast tower installation and maintenance company, dodged Katrina's eye as she slammed into Louisiana. Their office, located in Laplace, a community 20 miles west of New Orleans bordering Lake Pontchartrain, suffered minimal damage during the storm. However, communications were disrupted and they were forced to move their operations managers to their Winnsboro office. The company has seven crews and has an additional ten subcontractor crews on standby to assist with disaster recovery.
T-Mobile will be using the Laplace facility as a staging area, explained Data Cell Systems President Darold Parker. He said that they have already shipped 18 cell on wheels (COWs) mobile sites and antennas and lines for 30 sites.
"We've also had other carriers contacting us in regards to leasing office space and storage area for their equipment because of Laplace's close proximity to New Orleans," he said.
Sprint Nextel's Enterprise Incident Management Team, a group which oversees disasters, has deployed a Mobile Command Center with full network and Information Technology capabilities to coordinate the carrier's massive recovery effort along the Gulf Coast to restore service.
They say that hundreds of engineers and technicians are on standby to move into the area once it is safe. Two dozen specialty vehicles are being assembled by Sprint Nextel to coordinate the recovery effort and restore communications services.
The carrier's Emergency Response Team (ERT) is deploying two large RVs plus several other support vehicles, including five SatCOLTS, or satellite cells on light trucks, to aid with restoration of government and emergency services. The ERT will come equipped with 3,000 Nextel Walkie Talkie handsets for those emergency services customers and organizations.
In addition, Sprint's Government Sales group will be arriving with eight more RVs to assist government customers with their restoration needs.
Sprint Nextel will have the same problems of other cell carriers in trying to connect to a carrier that might be out of service. Obtaining power is a major hurdle in trying to restore their system. Much of their Gulf Coast network has equipment that is still submerged or destroyed.
Sprint Nextel said that wireline and wireless services into and out of the area have been disrupted. A long-distance switch had flooded and had to be powered down.
Sprint Nextel's local customers in the Florida Panhandle also have been impacted. Much of Sprint Nextel's long distance service is typically directed through New Orleans, so customers in the Florida Panhandle may find it difficult to place long distance calls, send data or use the Internet.
"Obviously we must wait until it is safe to move into the area, but once it is safe to do so, our customers can count on us being there for them," said Sal Todaro, Sprint Nextel's area vice president. "There will be many power issues to deal with, and we want to reassure our customers that we will put forth an effort second to none in recovering from this devastating storm."
All carriers and contractors are currently concerned about the safety of their employees as reports continue to come in from New Orleans about looting, shooting and commandeering of vehicles.
Verizon Wireless and Cingular had spent the weekend delivering fuel to generators at major cell sites in the Gulf Coast area. Verizon said 80 to 90 percent of the area's cell sites have backup generators. However, many other generators have exhausted their fuel while others are under water. Cingular said it deployed 500 emergency generators before the storm struck, with 130,000 gallons of fuel ready to recharge generators and 25 teams ready to refuel and move needed generators.
"Once areas are safe, we'll be able to go back into them and start restoration efforts; but until then, it is a safety issue," said Mark Siegel, a spokesperson for Cingular.
Both carriers will deploy dozens of COWs, to extend any needed network coverage.
The Red Cross is deploying satellite telephones, portable satellite dishes, specially equipped communications trucks, high- and low-band radio systems, and generator-powered wireless computer networks.
Nine specially designed Ford Excursion sport utility trucks, dubbed Emergency Communications Response Vehicles (ECRV), include various radio systems that allow communications on a wide range of frequencies across disaster areas. The vehicles have Very Small Aperture Terminal generator-equipped satellite dishes that can help establish communications in the absence of working phone lines and cell phone towers.
Many broadcasters along the coast were also shut down with equipment failures. In New Orleans the mayor and emergency personnel were only able to communicate to embattled residents and visitors through one AM radio and one local television station that remained on the air.