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Wireless companies respond rapidly to destruction from Hurricane Katrina

When Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Mississippi Gulf Coast August 29, Alltel network technicians Mark Lunsford and Vernon Walters huddled inside their respective Gulfport homes. Even though their houses withstood the category four storm, they lost electricity and were running out of food and water — with no way to communicate to managers in Jackson — when Alltel technicians dispatched from Pensacola located them at a cell site.

The restoration crew sent to repair the network provided Lunsford and Walters with food and water, a 25-kilowatt generator each, and offered them the use of an RV set up for technicians at a nearby staging area. Even though Alltel arranged for both families to be flown out of the damaged area and housed elsewhere, Lunsford and Walters remained on the Coast to help restore the network — and to celebrate the fourth birthday of Walters’ youngest son, Hayden. Network operations manager Mark McLain from Pensacola, arranged to have delivered a birthday cake for Hayden, a teddy bear for Walters’ daughter and a small scooter and riding dump truck.

“The poor little guy’s birthday was right in the middle of the hurricane — what a horrible time,” said Mike Graham, Alltel network operations manager from Jacksonville, Fla.

Scrambling to restore service

After the hurricane ravaged the Coast and South Mississippi, cellular companies scrambled to restore service and locate and care for their employees. Alltel has 250 coastal employees.

“Cellular South employees, some of whom were dealing with their own personal losses, knew that communication was critical for hurricane victims and evacuees and did everything they could to fully restore our customers’ ability to reach loved ones or call for emergency help in the aftermath of the storm,” said Hu Meena, president of Cellular South, the first wireless company to provide service on the Gulf Coast, beginning in 1988.

The Jackson-based company, which has the largest market share among wireless providers on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, had its network fully operational ahead of schedule, and the company’s wireless network reported a record minutes of usage upon restoration of service.

Cellular South reported a 256% increase in the number of minutes carried for other carriers’ customers following the storm, which equates to more than 8.5 million minutes of usage. The wireless provider also donated hundreds of cell phones to local, state and federal officials working to rebuild Mississippi, and to Red Cross shelters for hurricane victims, even non-Cellular South customers, to communicate with family and friends.

Early estimates indicate Cellular South will spend $12 million on repairs as a result of Hurricane Katrina. “Our goal has been to do whatever it takes to … provide communications during this critical time,” said Meena.

Massive deployment

Cingular Wireless deployed more than 800 network technicians across the Gulf States, many of them to New Orleans, and provided more than 500 generators, 800,000 gallons of fuel and 30-something COWs (cell sites on wheels).

By September 12, Cingular Wireless had fully restored service in Mobile, Ala., and Meridian, and had substantially restored service in Hattiesburg, Biloxi and Gulfport. More than 90% of the company’s retail stores have reopened in areas impacted by the storm. A few stores remain closed in the Gulfport and New Orleans area due to flooding, and two remain inaccessible.

“Customers should keep in mind that while the network is restored in most areas, there is increased demand on wireless service,” said Dawn Benton, regional public relations manager for Cingular Wireless. “Call volumes have more than doubled compared to pre-hurricane calling. The result is some congestion and blocked calls. If customers receive a fast busy or ‘your call cannot be completed at this time’ announcement when trying to make a call, they should wait 10 seconds before redialing. This will allow the original call data to clear the network before they try again. Customers should also try text messaging, which uses less bandwidth than voice calls and has a higher success rate of completion in impacted areas.”

SkyTel: ‘We’re OK’

Clinton-based SkyTel Communications, a wireless data and messaging service, said the paging service is fully restored in Mississippi. “We may move a few sites further from the Gulf, and may do some other tweaking, but for the most part, we’re OK,” said SkyTel president Bruce Deer.

The company lost one of its receivers at a Biloxi casino and a few receivers mounted in structures elsewhere didn’t survive the hurricane, Deer reported.

“Overall, this storm didn’t give us too much trouble,” he said. “I probably lost as much equipment in last year’s storm as I did in Katrina. Like everyone else, we ran into the issue of having power or Telco connectivity, but the way our network is configured, there’s enough redundancy without a degradation of service. The federal relief agencies down there have been quite pleased with the level of service and have been asking for more pagers.”

SkyTel was the first telecommunications company to provide New Orleans with wireless broadband Internet WiFi service after the storm.

“We’ve got some service at the airport, which is getting closer back to normal,” he said. “We had some broadband connectivity in downtown New Orleans. At the request of FEMA, we’ve been setting up WiFi hot zones at Louisiana evacuation centers in Baton Rouge, Monroe, Shreveport, Covington and Slidell. We haven’t yet gotten requests from FEMA for the Mississippi Gulf Coast, but it seems to be heading in that direction.”

Disaster recovery efforts have raised the awareness level of WiFi hot zones, said Deer.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.


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