Rewiring New Orleans

Hurricane Katrina literally blew away the telecom infrastructure in New Orleans. Forget about telephone poles and lines going down, BellSouth, the incumbent local exchange carrier, lost 34 central offices, nine of which were destroyed.

On our visit, BellSouth senior network manager Jules Baumann took us to see Bell South's Lake St. Catherine central office. As we drove along Route 90 east of New Orleans, Baumann drove right past it, then turned around and swung back.

It was easy to see why he missed it the first time. The metal building was gone. All that remained was a flat spot where the building had stood and a hole in the ground from which shot an orange fiber-optic cable connected to a trailer crammed with phone equipment. A cable hung down from a utility pole to supply power to the new central office that serves parts of East New Orleans.

Fortunately, none of BellSouth's primary switching equipment was flooded, because it was on the upper floors of surviving BellSouth buildings. But emergency generators and transmission equipment, such as fiber-optic multiplexers on lower floors or in the basement, were damaged.

BellSouth responded quickly, replacing the flooded generators and fiber-optic multiplexers and moving the equipment to higher floors. Digital loop carriers in the field were raised onto platforms 6 to 8 feet above ground level. Some services came back within a few hours, and other functions took weeks, depending on the severity of damage, availability of replacement parts, and other factors, according to CTO Bill Smith.

We toured the Mid-City central office where floodwaters had filled the basement to within a few feet of the ceiling, rendering inoperable the enormous batteries that power the phone system for that area. Ten months later paint crews were just brushing away the high-water mark with a fresh coat of white paint. New batteries, occupying a fraction of the space of the old ones, had been installed upstairs in the three-story building, away from the potential damage of another storm.

BellSouth also has upgraded the switches in the office with compact new technology that leaves vast empty spaces where the older, larger gear once sat.

In all, BellSouth invested nearly US$1 billion in a rebuilding effort that included replacing 100,000 copper cable pairs with fiber optics. Except for some heavily damaged neighborhoods where BellSouth is waiting to see whether people are going to move back, the major rebuilding effort has been completed.

For businesses, this new network could mean the availability of advanced telecom services. "That potential certainly exists, because any time you move fiber closer to the end user, you've got more opportunity, whether it's DSL on very short copper loops or potentially fiber-to-the-curb/fiber-to-the-home type of systems," Smith says. For example, Gigabit Ethernet will be more widely available to enterprises in New Orleans as a result of the new fiber, Smith says.

Verizon rebuilds and reroutes

Taking facilities out of New Orleans and away from the coast is an option carriers such as Verizon are embracing. The Verizon Business/MCI backbone suffered four optical fiber cuts when electrical transmission towers collapsed during the storm. Several regeneration facilities also were flooded.

Verizon Business decided to replace those fiber routes with aerial and buried routes north of the coast. The rebuild also prompted the carrier to accelerate its ultralong haul (ULH) project in New Orleans by 12 to 18 months.

ULH uses dense wavelength division multiplexing (DWDM) to deliver a fivefold increase to capacity on those fiber routes, and dual rails of parallel electronics for improved resiliency and latency, says Dick Price, director of business continuance and emergency management for Verizon Business.

ULH also allows for more flexibility in rerouting traffic and reduces the number of regeneration sites, Price says, cutting the number of points of failure and reducing maintenance costs. The SONET architecture that ULH replaces required signal regeneration every 25 miles; ULH requires it every 1,200 miles, according to Price.

"We were able to implement latest and greatest state-of-the-art ULH technology in there a little bit sooner than we had originally anticipated," he says. "We got the new service up and running away from the coast for better protection. At the same time, we were able to improve the overall technology in that area to provide better and more robust services."

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