Phone networks struggle in Katrina's wake
By Justin Hyde
Telephone companies struggled to restore service and measure the
damage to their networks in Louisiana and Mississippi on Tuesday after
Hurricane Katrina cut power and triggered severe flooding, but with
the governor's Wednesday announcement that 'all must evacuate now' it
is quite uncertain when/if ever telcommunications service will return.
Residents reported trouble making and receiving calls throughout the
day, and many turned to the Internet and text messaging to try and
reach relatives and friends.
"It's spotty at best," said Josh Britton, a student at Louisiana State
University in Baton Rouge. With cell phones, "a lot of times you'll
have to try for several minutes to make an outgoing call ... In
several of the parishes in southeast Louisiana there's virtually zero
A spokesman for BellSouth Corp., the largest local telephone company
in the region, said while the company estimated about 53,000 lines
were out in the two states, the actual numbers were likely to be
The three largest wireless companies -- Cingular Wireless, Verizon Wireless
and Sprint Nextel Corp. -- all said cellular service in the area had been
affected as well.
All companies said power losses were the main threat for further
service failures, but that flooding was hampering their efforts to
reach network equipment.
Entergy Corp. reported more than a million customers without power in
Louisiana and Mississippi, and warned customers to expect a long and
difficult restoration that could take weeks.
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin told television station WWL that 80
percent of the city was under water, and authorities declared martial
law in some areas.
MORE TO COME?
BellSouth spokesman Joseph Chandler said 75 central switches in
Louisiana were running on backup generator power and 340 remote
terminals were running on batteries.
He said BellSouth had about 34,000 lines down in Louisiana, but that
many people simply weren't able to report outages. The company has
about 800,000 customers in New Orleans alone.
"We have the potential for our outages to go up, and we're prepared
for that," Chandler said. "The biggest challenge we have right now is
we can't get out there."
In Mississippi, Chandler said BellSouth had 143 switches running on
generators and about 1,500 terminals on batteries. The batteries in
the terminals -- which handle telephone signals between homes and the
central switch -- could last a day or two before they would need to be
Cingular, the largest U.S. wireless service, said it was suffering
network disruptions in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, as well
as in Mississippi.
Verizon said in New Orleans, many cell sites were out of service,
limiting customers' ability to place or receive calls. The company
said customers who evacuated may be able to place calls but not
receive calls, and mobile-to-mobile calling might also be available to
Sprint Nextel, the No. 3 U.S. mobile service, said it was having its
worst network problems in New Orleans, where callers were unable to
make long distance calls outside the city, where it keeps key network
equipment that handles calls from the surrounding regions.
"Customers will see issues making long distance or wireless calls
within the area hit by the hurricane due to power outages and
flooding," said Sprint Nextel spokesman Charles Fleckenstein.
Cellular services rely on towers to send and receive signals from
customers' cellular phones. Both companies said many of their towers
were running on backup power, but flooding was hampering their efforts
to reach some sites.
Sprint Nextel and Cingular said they were prepared to use
truck-mounted cellular towers to bolster service in areas where they
couldn't reach their equipment due to flooding.
Several Internet posters said telephone service of any kind in the
affected areas was intermittent, but a few found text messages could
get through to cell phones where regular voice calls could not.
Britton and dozens of other people with Internet access used their
blogs to provide running updates on the conditions in specific
neighborhoods, to keep track of friends and pass along requests for
help and photographs of the damage.
Copyright 2005 Reuters Limited.
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