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8/31/2005
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Katrina Overwhelms Telecom Giants' Contingency Plans

Telcos scramble to restore service to customers while keeping employees safe.

Telecommunications companies were scrambling to plan service restorations Wednesday, while balancing the need to keep their employees safe amid rising flood waters in New Orleans.

BellSouth, Sprint Nextel and Cingular Wireless were gearing up for major recovery and restoration efforts all along the Gulf Coast. While the American Red Cross tackled its largest hurricane relief effort in history, all three companies planned to provide assistance through donations, equipment, calling centers, food, water and other necessities.

The companies were continuing to assess the damage from Hurricane Katrina. They could not yet determine the magnitude of the destruction or how long it would take to restore communications.

Atlanta-based BellSouth has about 1.75 million customers in damaged areas and about 750,000 customer lines in those that were hardest hit. About 13,000 of the company's employees were affected, and 180 of BellSouth's central offices were on generators.

"This is not a normal hurricane restoration," Bill Smith, Chief Technology Officer Bill Smith said in a statement issued Wednesday. "Working conditions are extremely difficult."

Long-distance switches were flooded and had to be powered down, and wireless sites with battery backup had no personnel or generators for recharging.

Customers in the Florida Panhandle have had difficulty placing and receiving calls, transmitting data and using the Internet because communications traffic is routed through New Orleans. Smith said BellSouth made some progress in Mississippi and Alabama, where flood levels were receding.

By Wednesday, Cingular Wireless had already set up free emergency calling stations in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. The company reported that more than 100 recovery crews were involved, including some teams conducting aerial surveys aboard helicopters. Cingular Wireless said it had access to more than 500 emergency generators and more than 240,000 gallons of fuel.

Meanwhile, Sprint Nextel announced that it would send about 3,000 Walkie Talkie handsets, nearly 25 specialty vehicles, satellite cells, and hundreds of engineers and technicians. The company's Enterprise Incident Management Team, which responds to disasters, was preparing a Mobile Command Center with full network and Information Technology capabilities.

"Obviously, we must wait until it is safe to move into the area," Sprint Nextel Southeast area Vice President Sal Todaro said in a statement released Wednesday. "Our equipment needs power to work, and while many sites have backup generators or batteries some of those sites may be flooded. It's a complex issue, but we have the people and assets in place to respond as quickly as humanly possible."

Michele Pinnau, a Sprint Nextel spokeswoman in Florida, said that there was no way for the company to know how many customers it has in the areas devastated by the hurricane.

"The problem with wireless is that customers are mobile, so their addresses could be there but there's no way to know if they are," she said in an interview Wednesday.

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