Why Louisiana Communication Networks Failed

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Emergency workers in Louisiana are scrambling to restore communication outlets into the devastated regions. Nell Boyce reports on what officials are doing to help victims contact loved ones and why wireless devices have stopped working in the region.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Nearly a week after Hurricane Katrina, much of the Gulf Coast is still in a communications blackout. If you try calling Louisiana's Office of Emergency Preparedness in Baton Rouge, you may get total silence or this:

(Soundbite of electronic tones)

Voice: All circuits are busy now. Please try your call later.

MONTAGNE: Many people are growing increasingly frantic at not being able to contact loved ones. NPR's Nell Boyce has more on why the lines went dead and what emergency workers are doing about it.

NELL BOYCE reporting:

Talking to reporters this week, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco bluntly explained one reason that relief efforts aren't going smoothly.

Governor KATHLEEN BLANCO (Louisiana): Part of the big problem is the communications network is down. We could not get cell phone access, we could not get BlackBerry access, much less a land line. The communications network is completely gone.

BOYCE: It's easy to understand why a normal telephone won't work. The wind knocks over telephone poles or water floods switching stations. But why won't a wireless device work? One reason is that most devices aren't really wireless. Todd Switzer works at a technology company called Award Solutions in Richardson, Texas.

Mr. TODD SWITZER (Award Solutions): The path from your cell phone to the tower is wireless, but from that tower to the next piece of switching equipment in the network is usually a wired connection, usually copper facilities buried under the ground or on poles.

BOYCE: The cell towers also need power. Some of them have backup batteries and generators, but these run out after a few hours or days. And, of course, a lot of the towers are just plain gone. The few that survived are being overwhelmed by demand, although small text messages can sometimes squeeze through. Fire and police officers are having similar problems with their two-way radio systems, which can depend on towers. Kelly Kerwin(ph) works with Motorola. It builds radio systems and is working closely with the state of Louisiana.

Mr. KELLY KERWIN (Motorola): I've dealt with hurricanes for the last five years, being in the Southeast, and this is the worst that I've ever seen.

BOYCE: Kerwin says some areas, like Baton Rouge and the Jefferson Parish in New Orleans, have already replaced damaged radio towers, and in other places, they're bringing in trucks with emergency radio systems, if the roads are open. Meanwhile, the major local telephone company, BellSouth, is working to repair land lines for the nearly two million customers in areas hit by the hurricane. It's also collaborating with cell companies to restore service. Chuck Hamby of Verizon Wireless says they're ready to move in with mobile cell towers known as COWs and COLTs.

Mr. CHUCK HAMBY (Verizon Wireless): COWs are cell sites on wheels, and then there's also cell sites on light trucks, and we call those COLTs, and it has a foldable boom on it with the cell site antennae array on it, and you telescope it up so you can plug it in, and away you go.

BOYCE: And when cell services are restored, some state and local emergency officials have special phones that give their calls priority so they don't face a jammed system.

Officials are also getting satellite phones. Weldon Knape works for World Communications Center in Chandler, Arizona. He says the company has rented out 400 phones this week to all kinds of relief workers, even cell phone companies.

Mr. WELDON KNAPE (World Communications Center): We've supplied quite a number of satellite phones to their teams that are going in to repair the cell towers. Even they can't communicate until they get the cell towers back going.

BOYCE: The thought of relief workers scrambling for satellite phones fills Reed Hunt with dismay. He's a former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. Hunt says that Katrina underscores the need to build a robust wireless system, specially designed for just emergency responders and relief workers.

Mr. REED HUNT (Former FCC Chairman): We shouldn't have to look on TV at the spectacle of public officials decrying the inability of relief organizations to communicate to each other, because if they had the network I'm talking about, that would be a solved problem.

BOYCE: These kinds of systems are feasible, he says. They're what the military uses in war zones. And that's what parts of the Gulf Coast are starting to look like. Nell Boyce, NPR News.

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