Gulf Telecommunications Grid Crawls Back to Life

About one million land-line phones were cut off by Hurricane Katrina, and cell phone service is still spotty. Telecommunications throughout the region won't return to normal until the power grid is repaired. Many telecommunications providers trucked in scores of generators and backup equipment to jump-start the process. Communications may be partially restored in the coming days.

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Telecommunications problems continue to complicate relief efforts. All along the Gulf Coast, telephone and cell phone companies have rolled in truckloads of back-up equipment but the situation may not improve until electrical power is restored. NPR's Larry Abramson reports.

LARRY ABRAMSON reporting:

BellSouth's Bill Smith says the number of landline telephone connections that Katrina knocked out was massive.

Mr. BILL SMITH (BellSouth): We believe that we started out with almost two and a half million lines in the total--the affected area. We think that we're down now to about a million lines in that area.

ABRAMSON: Those numbers are particularly striking if you consider all the back-up systems that usually keep telephones working long after the lights go out. Many telephone switching stations can run on battery power or on big diesel generators that can run for weeks. But increasingly landline networks rely on more efficient fiber-optic equipment and it depends on commercial electric power. Bill Smith says, as his teams go in to restore those switching stations, they have to pick and choose.

Mr. SMITH: Some of these areas, it's not even clear that there is, you know, a home or a business left to serve, which is one of the things we're assessing as we have our teams doing damage assessments now.

ABRAMSON: The goal is to bring landline service to local governments and emergency services first. Cellular phone service has been returning to some areas, thanks to portable generators and cell sites on wheels. Cingular spokesman Mark Siegel says devastated areas like Biloxi now have limited cell phone service again.

Mr. MARK SIEGEL (Cingular): And in places like Mobile, Alabama, and Jackson, Mississippi, and Pensacola, Florida, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, service is now back to normal levels.

ABRAMSON: Restoring cell service to New Orleans, of course, is another matter. Service will remain limited in the city until the lights come back on, and Mark Siegel says even people who left New Orleans with cell phones tied to the 504 area code face problems because of the way the cell system works.

Mr. SIEGEL: Well, what happens is if you have as that area, you can make calls but you would have a difficult time receiving them.

ABRAMSON: So Cingular is trying to re-route inbound traffic around New Orleans. Katrina has proven once again the value of the Internet as an emergency communications medium. MCI, which handles a major chunk of long-distance Internet traffic, says it redirected signals away from the Gulf Coast before the storm hit. That helped avoid any major traffic jams on the network. Of course, people in Mississippi and Louisiana still can't get online without electricity, but if they can find some juice somewhere there are lots of places in affected areas where they can IM and e-mail. T-Mobile is offering free wireless connections in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, and Bayou Internet has kept some of its business customers online by a wireless connection, according to sales manager Jason Pierce.

Mr. JASON PIERCE (Bayou Internet): We take a wireless panel and attach it to the building that they want to have Internet, and then we, basically, shoot wireless to that panel, and then we run it internally, inside their building, just like the regular network.

ABRAMSON: And that can be a lifesaver to companies that have enough auxiliary power to keep a few computers running. The situation remains frustrating, however, for the thousands of emergency workers in the area. Transmitters for many radio systems were crippled by wind damage, and Willis Carter, with the Shreveport Fire Department, says there's another problem. Carter is touring the southern part of the state today for the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials.

Mr. WILLIS CARTER (Shreveport Fire Department): Some are powered by natural gas, and, of course, the natural gas supply and lines have been disrupted. Others are powered by diesel, and, of course, you can't get diesel in. You can't get--you don't have any way to get the diesel into the tanks.

ABRAMSON: The final obstacle should disappear as National Guard troops keep order around New Orleans. Some telecom technicians have been unable to do their work because of fear they'll face fire from snipers. Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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