Cell phone service takes a big hit in hurricane states

In the destructive aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, hundreds of repair crews from Verizon Wireless and Cingular Wireless are on standby to get into ravaged parts Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama to repair waterlogged cell phone systems and equipment.

Tuesday in New Orleans, more than 24 hours after Katrina pummeled the city and the Gulf coast with 150 mph winds and floodwaters that in some areas measured 30 feet, emergency workers were trying to assess the damage as skies cleared and temperatures soared into the 90s. Even though the storm has passed, floodwaters continued to rise in New Orleans after a levee wall that had protected the city was breached in a two-block-long area, according to officials there. Officials have said dozens of people have been killed, but that death toll is expected to rise.

Patrick Kimball, a spokesman for Verizon Wireless, said the floodwaters now pouring into the city from nearby Lake Pontchartrain have made a bad situation worse.

"That has certainly complicated matters," Kimball said. "We are still in assessment mode. We obviously haven't been able to get our crews in safely" to begin making repairs, because the situation has not yet stabilised.

Flooding in New Orleans is what's having the most disruptive effects on cell phone network repairs, because the hardware is still submerged under feet of water, Kimball said. Power for the cellular service would not be as big an issue because some 90 percent of the cell phone towers and other equipment in the area have their own backup generators.

The floodwaters are also affecting land-based fiber-optic telephone lines and systems used by other companies, further complicating efforts to get communications back into service, he said.

Kimball said that no estimates are yet available for the number of cell phone systems and customers affected by the outages throughout the Southeast. Officials also do not know when repairs can begin, he said. "It's really too early to tell," Kimball said.

Verizon is mobilising and staging repair crews outside of the disaster areas and will begin moving them in when floodwaters subside and when police and fire officials advise them that the areas are safe to enter, he said.

So far, crews are beginning to go to work in areas less damaged by the monstrous storm, Kimball said. "I would say that recovery will come first to the areas that were less affected," he said. "We've got a lot of people working on the problems."

Verizon has workers, including network technicians and operations personnel, coming in from surrounding regions. It is also moving in extra generators and self-powered mobile cell phone sites called Cells on Wheels, or COWs, that allow the company to supplement its network with portable equipment to get systems running again.

When Verizon workers can't use cell phones to communicate, they must rely on satellite-based phones, Kimball said. "We use whatever means necessary," he noted.

Once the systems begin to get back in operation, Verizon workers will also set up mobile wireless emergency communications centers where technicians can repair a customer's cell phone if needed and provide power for them to charge their phones. Verizon Wireless stores will also be opened as soon as possible on generator power for customers to get repairs and help.

Rich Blasi, a spokesman for Atlanta-based Cingular Wireless, said Cingular crews are also on standby. The company is still trying to assess what parts of its system are operating and what hardware has been damaged or destroyed. "There are significant areas of New Orleans and such that are without service," Blasi said.

More than 100 teams of Cingular recovery technicians are on standby and hundreds of additional personnel are waiting in Florida and Georgia to move in when conditions improve.

The company said it has more than 500 emergency generators and fuel crews on hand in both Mobile and Lafayette to help keep the emergency systems operating.

Both Verizon and Cingular are reminding customers that sending short text messages over the cell phone network uses fewer resources, and those messages are more likely to get through than phone calls during periods of reduced service.

In response to the disaster, T-Mobile USA, announced that it will provide free Wi-Fi access to mobile computer users in many of its 66 HotSpot locations in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama through Sept. 2. The service will be offered in all HotSpot sites that have reopened after the storm, including sites in Borders Books and Music stores, FedEx Kinko's, Starbucks, Hyatt Hotels, Red Roof Inn motels and in American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and US Airways clubs and lounges.

The free service is intended for those who have been displaced from their homes or are seeking refuge from the hurricane, according to T-Mobile. A complete listing of T-Mobile HotSpot locations in these states is available at http://www.t-mobile.com/hotspot.

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