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Keeping in touch: telecoms prepare for storm season

After Hurricane Katrina had plowed a swath through the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Janita Stewart fretted about whether or not the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) office in Gulfport had survived.

Before the storm, Stewart, district director of the SBA in Mississippi, had contacted by cell phone agency spokesperson Gary Reed, who was able to secure — and ultimately save — office computer equipment before the storm made landfall. But not knowing the outcome was nerve-wracking.

“We experienced great difficulty in trying to establish communications with our branch office staff who fled out of harm’s way from Katrina to different locations,” said Stewart. “Communications via land-line telephone, cell phone, e-mail and Internet were basically non-existent. We could only sporadically communicate with our office there. Those were difficult times for us, but even much more so for them. Long distance service was unavailable for us to call Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, where our headquarters and regional offices are located. We could receive calls, but couldn’t return them when messages were left. A Blackberry equipped with telephone capability was purchased by headquarters for me and one was provided to the branch manager, which was helpful.”

To make sure its customers will have an easier time communicating in the event of another extraordinary storm, Mississippi telecom providers are gearing up.

Even though Cellular South’s network held up well during the 2005 hurricane season, especially during Katrina, the company learned “no excuses … to do whatever it takes to get service restored,” said Tony Kent, vice president of engineering and network operations.

“Like everyone else affected, Hurricane Katrina was the worst disaster we’ve ever faced,” he said. “We learned several lessons and because of this, we’re prepared more than ever to respond and provide critical communications in the event of a disaster.”

Cellular South’s plan for better hurricane preparedness includes $8 million in equipment and system upgrades.

“Additionally, we’re investing $78 million in 2006 to add 200 new cell sites to our wireless network across Mississippi; approximately 40 of those will be added in South Mississippi,” said Kent. “This follows a similar $39- million project in 2005 that added 110 cell sites in our home state.”

Since 1999, Cellular South has invested more than $400 million in its wireless network.

“Bottom line, the key is to not accept any excuses.”
BellSouth (NYSE: BLS) has also taken steps to respond quickly and effectively if another storm strikes the Southeastern U.S.

“Over the past nine months, BellSouth has remained intently focused on the completion of our restoration efforts along the Mississippi Gulf Coast and preparing for the 2006 hurricane season,” said BellSouth spokesperson Mike Walker. “We’re enhancing our already robust storm-preparedness activities to ensure that communications services can be maintained, or restored quickly, after any weather-related events.”

Because one of the most critical issues to BellSouth after a storm is providing power to its network in the event that commercial power is lost, the company has increased its supply of generators to power the network immediately after a storm hits. Also, many local digital loop carrier and switching facilities now house permanent generators, some of which are fueled by natural gas and do not require re-fueling.

The company has located more network-critical switches and generators on the upper floors of buildings, has elevated low-lying key distribution facilities, and has buried cables where possible.

Verizon Wireless has also made intensive preparations to maintain strong network coverage during a hurricane.

“We’ve seen that preparation equals performance in emergencies as well as every day, and we want to help residents communicate and stay safe before, during and after storms,” said Katherine Greene, Verizon Wireless Gulf Coast region president.

Since 2000, Verizon has invested more than $1 billion in digital wireless network strengthening efforts in the Gulf Coast region alone. More than 95% percent of Verizon Wireless transmission sites in the region have their own generators to keep the network operating during power outages.

Since the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina, companies have accelerated their hurricane preparedness plans.

“In our office of fewer than 20 employees, we found text messaging and direct Blackberry-to-Blackberry emails to be very effective during Katrina, but our e-mail servers here in the building were down and we were mostly unable to get through to employees on cell phones,” said Tony Jeff, interim CEO of the Mississippi Technology Alliance.

Facing another hurricane season, Stewart added Blackberries and cell phones. Another federal agency provided the SBA office with laptop computers.

“Including laptops we already had, we now have enough for each employee to take home or take to an alternate worksite to use for official business, if need be, in the event we have to vacate temporarily,” she said. “We’re also exercising due diligence by informing small businesses and people who contact us about becoming entrepreneurs that they need to be prepared in the event of a disaster.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at Lynne.Jeter@gmail.com.


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