Cell carriers tackle Katrina damage

Mobile phone operators Thursday were gearing up in the area devastated by Hurricane Katrina to restore cell phone service, the only communications lifeline for some of those displaced by the disaster.

Service was out on Thursday across much of New Orleans and the parts of Mississippi and Alabama hit by the storm. Where cell phones did work, circuits often were jammed and callers turned to text messaging to communicate, according to Jim Gerace, a spokesman for Verizon Wireless. (More Katrina news )

Cingular Wireless, a joint venture of SBC and local carrier BellSouth, recommends callers use text messaging in disaster situations in order to keep voice channels free for emergency communications. Text messages also go through more quickly than regular calls when the network is in heavy use, said Cingular spokeswoman Kelly Starling.

Carriers were assessing the damage and moving to restore availability where they could, though some areas were closed off by authorities. Crews were already out in the field in many affected areas late Thursday but were not yet allowed in to New Orleans for repairs there, Starling said.

While some cell sites were underwater, others lacked power and many were unable to carry calls because the lines that connected them to the traditional wired communications network weren't working. Those that were submerged won't be coming back on line, Verizon's Gerace said.

"It's the equivalent of putting your PC in the bathtub. It's not going to work any longer," he said.

Across the whole affected area, about half of Verizon Wireless' cells were operational on Thursday afternoon, and more were being restored almost every hour, Gerace said.

Extensive damage to the landline network has had a follow-on effect on cell service. One key link that was heavily damaged in the hurricane was the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway.

"That bridge carried more than just traffic," Gerace pointed out. It also had a conduit for power and fiber-optic lines, he said.

Many Verizon Wireless cell sites are operating on emergency generators, even though some of them have no link to the phone network. In those cases, customers' phones may show strong coverage but be unable to complete a call, Gerace said.

T-Mobile USA reported that about one-third of its cell sites were operational in the Mississippi coast area, according to a T-Mobile spokesman. In New Orleans, T-Mobile's switch was working and the carrier was providing limited service, he said.

Sprint Nextel was mobilizing its restoration efforts for the region with hundreds of trucks and support vehicles, generator fuel and batteries, and handsets, said spokesman Charles Fleckenstein. He would not estimate how many cells were out of action but said both text messaging and voice service was very limited in New Orleans.

"It would be very difficult to place a call into or out of that city," Fleckenstein said.

According to Cingular, the worst service problems are in New Orleans. Service was almost fully restored in the Baton Rouge, La., area and parts of Alabama had been almost fully restored, it said. Cingular is operating a Web site with updates about the service situation. The carrier is offering free emergency calls at its company-owned stores in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi.

Verizon has "cell sites on wheels" (COW) going to various locations to restore service, Gerace said. Typically, these trucks plug in to the wired phone network, but Verizon is prepared to use microwave transmission from one COW to another that has a landline connection.

Restoring cell sites requires hard work and improvisation, Verizon's Gerace said.

"You can't just have some guy sit at a computer and bring back cell sites," he said.

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Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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