Telecoms ride to the rescue

Carriers turn out in force to aid Katrina recovery effort <@VM>Telecom execs: Loss of communications heightens need for nationwide system

A Sprint government account representative with the Emergency Response Team programs phones for public safety organizations.

Courtesy of Sprint

Within 48 hours of Hurricane Katrina's landfall in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, telecommunications contractors were on the ground, assessing damage to government facilities and identifying affected services.

The biggest natural disaster in U.S. history destroyed much of the region's landline and wireless infrastructure. Circuits and switches were flood-damaged, and wireless antennas were blown down by high winds.

Carriers quickly moved in and set up satellite-equipped radio cell sites on light trucks, or SatCOLTs, to let emergency rescue workers and public safety professionals communicate.

"We were seeing some fast responses by our carriers in terms of restoring telecommunications services in the area," said John Johnson, assistant commissioner for the General Services Administration's Federal Technology Service. "We had originally anticipated a week or so for a response to some of these outages, but the systems and services were being brought up in a matter of hours and days."

Several federal agencies with offices in the Gulf Coast region lost their connections to the outside world, although Johnson could not say which ones suffered the most damage. GSA identified fewer than 800 problem areas.

GSA requires its telecom contractors to participate in the Telecommunications Service Priority program, which lets government and national security emergency preparedness users set priorities for their circuits, Johnson said. GSA then can notify carriers to restore services where they are most urgently needed.

Sprint Nextel Corp. of Reston, Va., provided wireless service and land mobile radio systems to local police and fire departments, and agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Tony D'Agata, vice president of federal government, public sector at Sprint Nextel.

As of mid-September, Sprint Nextel had restored all wireless services in Alabama, more than 90 percent of wireless service in Mississippi, and more than 70 percent in Louisiana, the company said.

Heavy flooding in New Orleans, along with a lack of diesel fuel and armed looters, made some areas inaccessible by the company's technicians and engineers.

"The flooding was a substantial barrier," said Matt Foosaner, director of Sprint Nextel's emergency response team. "The anarchy that reigned afterward was worse than the lack of diesel fuel."

The company offered interoperable communications equipment to federal, state and local public safety agencies to let them communicate and coordinate their efforts, he said. Sprint deployed more than 6,000 wireless devices to critical public safety entities and is deploying 3,000 more, Foosaner said.

AT&T Government Solutions Inc. had more than 250 priority orders -- a huge number -- from government clients and first responders for circuit orders, said Lou Addeo, president of AT&T Corp.'s Vienna, Va., government unit. More than 100 of those orders went through FEMA, he said.

By mid-September, AT&T had completed half the priority orders, and Addeo estimated that the company would finish the rest the following week.

The company also dispatched a handful of emergency communications vehicles to Louisiana and Mississippi for use by the state police, National Guard and for the airport and bus terminals in New Orleans, Addeo said.

"Before the hurricane, we had these emergency vehicles located in the South ready to go," he said. "We put our assets where they need to go in times like this, [in which we] can never anticipate the scale."

Harris Corp. of Melbourne, Fla., provided mobile satellite communications equipment for voice and data to devastated areas in the Gulf Coast region through Florida's Emergency Operations Center.

The company reconfigured and diverted 12 satellite communications terminals destined for Africa to provide crucial communications in Louisiana and Mississippi. The terminals perform vital voice, data, Internet and fax operations as well as telemedicine video.

"Our focus right now is to provide essential emergency communications ability on a quick-react basis, so that emergency responders and the people in the disaster area can get about doing their jobs and restoring their lives," said Mike Zeitfuss, vice president and general manager of Harris' homeland security business unit.

Lucent Technologies Inc. of Murray Hill, N.J., which supplies telecom network equipment to carriers that supply services to federal, state and local government offices in the region, has about 150 people in the area working primarily with BellSouth, said Denise Panyik-Dale, a company spokeswoman.

"There's everything from repairing and replacing infrastructure to rerouting and replacing switches," said Phil Anderson, vice president of Washington operations at Lucent Technologies. The company also is cleaning communications switches so they won't have to be replaced, he said.

AN UNUSUAL FARM

Lucent Technologies also sent "switches on wheels," known in industry parlance as SOWs, to the region. These trailers offer switching needs for the company's service providers in the region. Lucent Technologies also sent "cellular on wheels" vehicles, called COWs, for more than 500 government users for emergency communications.

Lucent Technologies also provided the Coast Guard with a wireless search and rescue system, which identifies and calls any active mobile handsets that survivors trapped in attics may have. The company also has supplied thermal imaging systems for rescuers to identify survivors through rooftops and to locate individuals who are inside buildings and cannot be detected by wireless technology, Anderson said.

Although it is difficult to estimate the total damage to the telecommunications systems for government, corporate and residential users in the areas hit by the hurricane, some carriers have reported their own costs. Sprint Nextel estimated that restoration of network infrastructure and related costs from Hurricane Katrina damage would total $150 million to $200 million.

BellSouth Corp., the largest provider of local phone services in the areas hit by Hurricane Katrina, estimated Sept. 6 the cost of restoring service at $400 million to $600 million.

The Atlanta company also said it had re-stored service to more than half of the 1.7 million customers' lines the storm disabled, but would need much more time to restore service to New Orleans. The company also is preparing for lost revenue, but did not have an estimate.

Staff Writer Roseanne Gerin can be reached at rgerin@postnewsweektech.com.
The communications problems experienced in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina should serve as a clarion call for an interoperable, public safety communications system that is national in scope, telecom executives said.

Any such system should be built primarily on a cellular platform and integrate land mobile radio, said Phil Anderson, vice president of Washington operations at Lucent Technologies Inc.

The technology exists, but it will be expensive, he said. "The government has to determine if this is something that the government funds, something that is a public-private partnership, or if there is a commercial business case that would allow the private sector to invest and build this and make money on it," Anderson said.

The federal government needs a better vision of how to respond to catastrophes such as Hurricane Katrina.

"What I believe will happen is that the nature of this event will precipitate, yet again, another discussion about the interoperability of communications systems at all levels of the government of the United States," said Mike Zeitfuss, vice president and general manager of the homeland security business unit at Harris Corp., Melbourne, Fla.

The government also should place critical facilities, such as data centers, outside flood zones, said Tony D'Agata, vice president of federal government, public sector at Sprint Nextel Corp.

D'Agata said that wireless communications, which held up a little better than landline communications in the Gulf Coast region, would prevail when one is looking at building a wide area network.

"There will be opportunities to plan for integrated wireline and wireless solutions," he said.

Federal agencies, whether the Homeland Security Department or the Federal Emergency Management Agency, must ensure that before a natural disaster, they have a plan to handle citizen communications, said Lou Addeo, president of AT&T Government Solutions Inc. The government should prepare to add extra personnel to emergency call centers and develop scripts for offering disaster assistance to callers, he said.

The government also must ensure it can add more telecom lines to handle surges in call volume, he said.

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