Comm industry mobilizes to rebuild the Gulf Coast's communications

The communications industry has scrambled in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to provide emergency responders on the Gulf Coast with cellular, satellite and radio communications.

'In isolated places [the disruption] is total,' Verizon Wireless spokesman Patrick Kimball said last week. 'There is no landline service, no wireless service. We still have not been able to get our crews into New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.'

Within a week of the storm's landfall, service was being restored in areas outside New Orleans and inland from the Gulf. But central New Orleans and the coasts of Mississippi and Alabama remained largely offline. Cellular service in Biloxi was confined to sites at the Imperial Palace Hotel and Casino, FEMA's base of operations, and the Gulfport-Biloxi Regional Airport, where the National Guard is operating.

'It depends on our access,' Kimball said. 'The speed of recovery has been much quicker' in areas where workers are able to travel freely.

Motorola Communications and Electronics Inc., a major supplier of police and emergency radio systems, sent more than 300 people and 21,000 pieces of equipment to the area and deployed three trailer-mounted mobile communications sites.

'Communications continued with the ma- jority of our customers throughout the storm in some form or other,' said Kelly Kirwan, vice president of Motorola's southern sales division. But that does not mean they were unscathed. 'A lot of the systems took tremendous damage from wind and water.'

And if Earth's weather hasn't created enough problems, forecasters at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Environment Center on Sept. 7 spotted one of the largest solar flares on record'it disrupted high-frequency communications for several hours in much of the United States. Solar forecaster Larry Combs said the air traffic control system experienced blackouts and that 'communications used by emergency services along the Gulf Coast may also have experienced problems.'

Also, the influx of emergency personnel requires additional infrastructure and equipment.
The 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force sent to the disaster area from Camp Lejeune, N.C., is equipped with ruggedized PDAs loaded with logistics, engineering and emergency response software from Global Relief Technologies LLC of Chevy Chase, Md.

Ten of the units were rushed to the USS Whidbey Island for transport. Additional devices were contributed to FEMA. They are supported by satellite communications terminals and service from Telenor Satellite Services Inc. of Rockville, Md.

The PDAs are TDA Recon handhelds from Tripod Data Systems Inc. of Corvallis, Ore. GRT digitized paper forms used by Marine engineering and reconnaissance forces and optimized them for use on a PDA.

The PDAs can upload data to the GRT network operations center by landline, cellular or satellite communications.

With traditional communications in the area disrupted, the primary link is via In- marsat satellite through Telenor. The Rockville, Md., company is supplying the Marines with Mini-M terminals, notebook-sized terminals that provide 9.6-Kbps links. The Marines also will be using the larger Global Area Network terminal, a 10-pound terminal that can provide 64-Kbps links.

With communications slowly returning to the Gulf Coast, interoperability remains an issue for law enforcement, emergency workers and relief organizations.

Standards-based digital radio systems make communications between agencies possible, but how well they work depends on whose equipment an agency is using, how old it is and what frequency it uses. 'Public safety still doesn't have a dedicated spectrum,' Kirwan said.

Most Motorola customers in the Gulf area are using the company's 800-MHz Project 25 systems, which can communicate with each other. But there are also VHF and UHF systems in use, and New Orleans uses a system from a different provider.

Restoring cellular service is complicated by the fact that it relies heavily on landline service for network connections and power supply, said Verizon's Kimball. About 80 percent of the company's cell sites in the area have permanent generators, and additional portable generators are being brought in. But generators require fuel that is scarce in areas where transportation is difficult or impossible.

More than a dozen mobile cellular sites' called cells on wheels'were staged by Verizon in the area immediately after Katrina's passage. They are being deployed in the most hard-hit and mission-critical areas.

The hardest-hit area remains New Orleans, although Kimball said some progress is being made. 'We are seeing light through the clouds,' he said. 'We're starting to see anecdotal things. We got a call from a guy on Bourbon Street. But those are isolated.'

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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