Techies Find Solutions to Gulf Coast's Telecom Woes

Hurricane Katrina devastated communications systems throughout the Gulf Coast — everything from land lines to cell phones to Internet access. Now tech industry volunteers are helping the government fix the problem. Day to Day technology contributor Xeni Jardin reports.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Hurricane Katrina devastated communications systems throughout the Gulf states. Today BellSouth said the cost of damage to its network alone may reach $600 million. Close to one million telephone lines are still down. Cell phone and Internet service remains cut off in much of the region. Some connectivity is back, though, thanks in part to tech industry volunteers. DAY TO DAY technology contributor Xeni Jardin has more.

XENI JARDIN reporting:

When Hurricane Katrina passed and floodwaters continued to rise, so did awareness of just how badly the region's communications infrastructure had been damaged. Voice, data and broadcasting services in many places didn't work, cutting off survivors and making the jobs of emergency workers and law enforcement impossibly difficult. How do you coordinate without communication? On Friday, the Federal Communications Commission held an emergency conference call to organize reconnect efforts with tech giants like Intel and Cisco as well as smaller tech groups. FCC staff worked with tech volunteers throughout the holiday weekend. Using Web sites, blogs and e-mail lists, the groups asked tech companies to identify resources they could donate. Michael Anderson of Part-15.org heads up one private industry effort working with the FCC.

Mr. MICHAEL ANDERSON (Part-15.org): Those established communication networks that they're trying to re-establish--the rush to get those back up is so the emergency services personnel--the police, the fire, the other relief agencies--can at least talk to each other once again. I don't believe that's going to be opened up for normal everyday communications like it was two weeks ago.

JARDIN: Anderson says hundreds of companies responded with offers of gear, personnel and network capacity. The FCC in turn is coordinating with FEMA and other government authorities to figure out who gets what, where and how quickly. Individual geeks in small community wireless groups are also teaming up with the FCC to get the communications grid working again. In calmer times, the ad hoc culture of do-it-yourself techies is often seen as outside the communications industry mainstream. But organizer Sascha Meinrath of Illinois group CUWireless says when the big grid is down, that's exactly what's needed.

Mr. SASCHA MEINRATH (CUWireless): We have a breakdown in many of the things that people rely on to deploy these sorts of systems, and then we have people whose expertise is in, you know, rubber-banding and bubble-gum-sticking and, you know, pulling together things with whatever is at hand. That's very much what we need right now is people of that level of innovation and expertise.

JARDIN: The FCC is bending its own rules, reaching out to amateur radio operators in rural areas and giving volunteers permission to launch a low-power FM radio station in Louisiana, what would usually be called pirate radio, to provide emergency information. FCC chief of staff Daniel Gonzalez says the agency is working with a wide array of providers to get temporary systems up fast and to work towards longer-term rebuild.

Mr. DANIEL GONZALEZ (FCC Chief of Staff): We understand that service crews are currently going into the affected areas, trying to restore service. That includes the wireline providers, wireless providers, satellite providers, broadcast radio and television as well as cable. The industry has really pulled together during this crisis to try to resolve these issues.

JARDIN: Communications by any means necessary also seems to be the principle guiding volunteers from the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, or Calit2. They're teaming up with cell company QUALCOMM and satellite provider ViaSat to relink storm-affected areas. Director Ramesh Rao.

Mr. RAMESH RAO (Director, California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology): We have units on the ground there in Baton Rouge with satellite dishes, with mobile base stations and lot of handsets to give out to the local responders there to create that connectivity, the communication fabric that's needed as a first step.

JARDIN: Today, cell service is beginning to come back to some spots. Internet and radio communications are also becoming available in limited areas. But serious challenges remain. Lack of ground security has held up efforts, though tech volunteers say this is beginning to improve. Many point out delays in obtaining access and permission from FEMA and other agencies. But most of all, nothing happens without electricity. And for now, in the Gulf states, that's hard to come by. For NPR News, I'm Xeni Jardin.

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. DAY TO DAY will be right back.

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