Telecom looks for ways to avoid storm-related outages

Von Matt Hamblen

New technologies and improved emergency procedures could help avoid prolonged communications outages should another disaster of the same magnitude as Hurricane Katrina strike the U.S., IT managers and analysts said this week.

Their ideas range from making sure that cellular and land-line telephone switches are located well above sea level to more unusual suggestions, including the use of emerging WiMax technologies and mesh networks -- or even putting radio transceivers aboard blimps that could be flown to a disaster zone.

Several analysts said the private sector could also bolster its communications preparedness by setting up consortiums to buy portable cellular sites or satellite communications equipment that could be shared during emergencies.

The question of how to better protect telecommunications systems is expected to get a lot of attention because of the massive outages caused by Katrina, which knocked out both cellular and land-line links in the disaster area.

"A lot of people will be looking at what happened with communications after Katrina to see what could be done better in the next worst-case scenario, because this is the worst-case scenario," said Charles Fleckenstein, a spokesman for Sprint Nextel Corp. who was in Baton Rouge, La.

Fleckenstein described situations where repair crews found cellular towers under water and without connections to local telephone systems because "entire neighborhoods no longer exist."

And despite what were described as Herculean efforts by repair crews, several telecommunications carriers said that cellular and land-line service in New Orleans was still spotty nine days after Katrina came ashore.

A common theme this week was the need to bolster the nation"s telecommunications infrastructure.

"You could go on and on, but the bottom line is that you need to harden systems," said Ken Dulaney, an analyst at Gartner Inc. For example, as New Orleans is rebuilt, cellular carriers should raise their entire communications systems above the flood plain, providing wireless connections to cell towers both for links to end users and to switching stations, he said.

Hossein Eslambolchi, AT&T Corp."s CIO, said city planners and utilities nationwide need to work together to harden fiber-optic infrastructures, making the duct system that carries the fiber waterproof. "Our cities were really designed for the horse and buggy centuries ago, with communications added above that, so you need to redesign and rethink," he said.

Eslambolchi even suggested that telecommunications vendors should consider powering their base stations and central switching offices with alternate energy sources such as solar cells.

Scott Midkiff, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, said wireless mesh technologies are "very promising" because they enable network topologies to be dynamically changed in response to outages, helping to make networks self-healing.

Even a cellular base station aboard a blimp or other airborne vehicle is "not a crazy idea," Midkiff said, noting that the military has demonstrated the concept.