TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: Katrina Aftermath

Katrina Aftermath

Stephanie N. Mehta (
Sat, 10 Sep 2005 17:41:28 -0500

In a Post-Katrina World, Getting Calls Through

Why does phone service stop working at times when we most need
to communicate? Some companies are deploying new technologies that should
prevent future outages, or at least help restore service faster.

Friday, September 9, 2005
By Stephanie N. Mehta

In the scary hours after the attacks on the World Trade Center, New
Yorkers could be found queued up at pay telephones, clutching impotent
cellphones in their hands. During the blackouts of 2003, callers
trying to reach friends and family on the East Coast often got busy
signals-a rare phenomenon in this age of call waiting and
voicemail. And Hurricane Katrina initially knocked out or at least
interrupted service to hundreds of thousands of phone lines, according
to BellSouth, the dominant phone company in the Gulf region-and the
carrier is still struggling to restore many of those lines. Indeed, it
seems at the very times many Americans have most desperately needed to
communicate, the nation's phone networks have failed.

Why does this happen? In the case of Hurricane Katrina, some of the
massive computers used to route and connect calls were wiped out by
flooding; in other instances the actual phone lines were cut or
damaged by the storm. And wired and wireless networks alike sputtered
when the backup generators running their switching systems-remember,
much of the region had no electrical power-ran out of fuel or were
themselves damaged by the floods. In other crises, networks simply
were overloaded or critical equipment broke down.

Now, some regulators and consumers are asking a simple question: How
can we build a better phone network-one that withstands the rigors of
disasters such as Hurricane Katrina or the attacks of September 11?
Companies such as Lucent Technologies, which supply to the big phone
companies, say they already are improving communications networks
based on the lessons from previous disasters. "Prior to 9/11 our idea
of disaster recovery was dealing with a fire in a central office,"
admits Nick De Tura, vice president of North American customer
operations of Lucent Technologies. (A central office is a hub that
houses a carrier's switching equipment and phone lines that serve a
neighborhood.) "Now every service we develop is built with an eye
toward speed and flexibility" for moving phone calls onto working
networks. Indeed, some companies and their competitors already are
deploying some new technologies that will prevent future phone
outages, or at least help restore service faster. Of course, even the
newest technologies still require power and perhaps shelter, making
them also vulnerable to Katrina-like forces. But here's a look at a
handful of advancements that are making communications more
disaster-resistant-or at least more disaster-resilient.

VOIP: With many voice-over-Internet Protocol systems, users simply
need access to a broadband network in order to make and receive calls
using their assigned home numbers-even if they're no longer at
home. With VOIP, calls are transmitted in the language of the
Internet, or "packets," so they don't have to travel over a
traditional copper telephone wire. Also, users are assigned an
Internet Protocol address, which isn't location-sensitive. Say a
family relocated from Biloxi to Houston. They could take their VOIP
phone along (or a special adapter that comes with most VOIP systems),
and once they gained access to a broadband system-a cable modem or DSL
line, for example-they'd be able to receive calls from worried friends
and relatives on their home number. "It would be the same service they
had before," says Mike Hluchyj, founder and CTO of Sonus Networks,
which helps phone companies deploy VOIP calling services. "The device
automatically configures the service-they don't even have to involve
any personnel within the phone company." Still, in the most severely
devastated parts of the Gulf Coast, VOIP phones wouldn't have been
much help for the stranded, because broadband connections were totally
wiped out.

Wi-Fi: One technology that may help get broadband systems back up and
running is Wi-Fi, the same wireless standard you may use to get
Internet access for your laptop at coffee shops and airports. Tropos,
one of a handful of upstarts that sells wireless systems covering
entire cities, says Wi-Fi (which operates on the same unlicensed
spectrum that cordless phones and microwaves use) is robust enough to
provide broadband service when wired networks fail. The company's gear
is configured so that its wireless antennas all talk to each other,
which can allow users to access the service even if the nearest wired
network is 100 miles away. "We can provide broadband wireless access
with limited need for wires," says Chris Rittler, vice president of
product development for Tropos, which is just starting to work with
officials in the Gulf region. "It is a great application in light of a
horrible event." One big limitation: You need a special Wi-Fi modem in
order to connect to a Wi-Fi network. While most new laptops are
equipped, few desktops are, and Wi-Fi phones-cordless phones that can
talk to Wi-Fi networks-are just starting to hit the market.

Softswitches: As more phone companies move voice traffic onto Internet
networks, many are starting to replace their traditional
switches-massive computers that take up entire rooms and guzzle
power-with smaller, software-driven machines that consume less
power. So if generators or batteries kick in, these "softswitches" can
stay operational longer. Also, phone companies typically can redirect
traffic traveling through a softswitch more easily, allowing
technicians to remotely program the switch to move traffic away from
damaged lines and onto working networks. However, phone companies like
BellSouth, SBC Communications, Verizon and Qwest have invested
billions of dollars in their traditional switching infrastructure, and
it will take years for them to migrate completely to softswitches and
other new equipment. Disasters such as Katrina, however, may just end
up accelerating those purchases.

Copyright 2005 Time Inc.

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