Amid the chaos and devastation during the days following Hurricane Katrina, engineers from Verizon Wireless made an opportune discovery: A single high-speed Internet line inside a Circuit City store in Gulfport, MS, was “alive.” Seizing the opportunity, the engineers hurriedly called a Verizon office for delivery of a so-called cell on wheels and began cobbling together loose hardware in an effort to capitalize on their find.
“We ran a cable from the telecom room in the back of the store to the cell on wheels in the parking lot and boom! We had an instant cell site,” recalls Patrick Kimball, a Verizon spokesman.
The instant cell site was a boon for local residents, quickly transforming itself into a distribution point for the U.S. National Guard and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. There in the Circuit City parking lot, federal workers passed out water, ice and food. Moreover, the cell on wheels (or “COW,” as it's known) served as a communication point for locals desperately trying to call concerned family members.
“Suddenly, you had this bubble of wireless activity surrounding an intersection in Gulfport,” Kimball says. “And we were able to keep that 'bubble' up and running for weeks until other sites could come back and support the wireless traffic.”
As critical as that bubble was, however, it was just a small example of the role played by cellular phones and networking technology in the recovery of the Gulf region. Indeed, cell usage grew so dramatically in the months following Katrina that the cities of Houston and New Orleans emerged in mid-2006 as the biggest cellular markets in the U.S., according to Telephia, a mobile industry research group.
Moreover, the communications industry has learned a multitude of important lessons from the Katrina experience and many of them revolve around cellular and broadband technologies.
“We took a very hard look at who was successful at Katrina and why,” says Bob Browning, senior manager of tactical operations support for Cisco Systems, Inc., which sent in more than $10 million worth of satellite dishes and other equipment to the Katrina recovery. “Then we looked at who wasn't successful and why. We've all had to ask ourselves how we could have done better.”
Wireless Goes Mobile
Even as engineers look back at the Katrina phenomenon, however, most view it with a certain amount of resignation. Yes, they say, they could have done better in some cases. But given the devastation that came with the storm, a certain level of power loss and telephone service disruption were inevitable.
“Many of our large centers have considerable back-up power,” says Mark Siegal of AT&T (formerly Cingular). “But no back-up system in the world can cope with a disaster the magnitude of Hurricane Katrina.”
To some degree, the Gulf Coast had prepared for Katrina. Hurricanes in the
two years prior to Katrina had taught communications companies the importance of back-up power. By some estimates, more than 90 percent of cell sites had permanent generators. Many used diesel fuel to spin generators; many others employed battery back-ups. A few rooftop cell sites employed natural gas, rather than diesel, because of safety concerns.
But after the storm hit, the real issue was the lack of broadband connectivity to cell sites. With connections to fiber optics or so-called T1 lines damaged, mobile phones were cut off from the outside world.
Worse, many of the broadband connections couldn't be repaired in short order. One of the biggest broadband trunk lines had gone down with the collapse of the I-10 bridge over Lake Pontchartrain, leaving New Orleans without a major fiber optic artery. At the same time, switching offices in New Orleans were flooded, taking out another link in the chain between the devastated city and the outside world.
“The fiber optic and broadband networks in that part of the world were absolutely decimated in the aftermath of the storm,” says Kimball of Verizon. “The major problem was that even though our cell sites might be fully functional; even though they might be raised above ground; even though they might have battery back-ups; they were still completely isolated from our network switches because the broadband networks were down.”
To solve the problems, mobile phone companies such as Verizon and Cingular rolled in the cells on wheels (COWs) and cells on light trucks (COLTs). The COWs and COLTs are essentially self-contained cellular sites, complete with portable antenna, transceivers, switches, rectifiers and base station controllers. Engineers say the portable units are tougher to design and slightly more costly, mainly because electronics are packed into less space, giving rise to heat dissipation issues. Still, they say, the units offered wireless functionality, as long as a functional T1 line could be located.
In the wake of the storm, enough T1 lines were located to enable the COWs and COLTs to re-connect Gulf Coast residents to the outside world. The result: a legacy of confidence in cellular technology, especially when many of the washed out land lines failed to come back.
“For the first time ever, the New Orleans area last year was one of the fastest growing wireless markets,” Kimball says. “Because of the incredible reliance on wireless technology after the storm, there are still neighborhoods in New Orleans that do not have landline phone service or DSL service or cable modem connections. To this day, some of them are still relying on wireless.”
Keeping Businesses Afloat
When examining the technological recovery of the region, Verizon executives also point to the launch of the company's broadband network as one of the keys. Known as BroadbandAccess and based on a technology called ED-VO (Evolution-Data Optimized), it arrived six months prior to Katrina in New Orleans and just three days prior to Katrina in Baton Rouge, LA. In essence, BroadbandAccess created giant hot spots around those cities, enveloping those metropolitan areas in a broadband bubble.
“With this, you could get in a car at the south end of Houston, sit in the back for two hours sending e-mails and never drop coverage,” Kimball says.
Based on a cellular network, BroadbandAccess provides huge coverage areas that allow users to connect to the Internet via wireless modems. “It was a huge boon for New Orleans because the landlines were out and users were able to connect to the Internet, send and receive e-mail and keep their businesses running using wireless networks in a way that couldn't have been done two years earlier,” Kimball says.
Moreover, Verizon combined the COWs, COLTs and BroadbandAccess to help set up Wireless Emergency Communication Centers with banks of phones where residents could make outside calls. The centers, set up in such locales as the Houston Astrodome and Baton Rouge Convention Center, helped residents with and without cell phones to keep in touch with the rest of the world.
Similarly, Cisco Systems Inc. offered solutions in the wake of Katrina through the development of Network Emergency Response Vehicles (NERVs), which combined high-speed wireless network access and IP telephony. The vehicles incorporate a 1.8-m satellite dish, a variety of different radio communication frequencies (UHF, VHF and HF), routers, transceivers and a 42-ft extendable antenna.
“In areas affected by Katrina, we could pull into a Wal-Mart parking lot, get the satellite locked on and in 10-15 minutes start providing voice, data and video services to the region,” says Browning of Cisco.
Doing so, however, was no simple task. To accomplish that in New Orleans, which had no dial tones at the time, Cisco engineers sent signals through the satellite and across the Internet to a gateway at a Cisco lab in Raleigh, NC, ultimately co-opting a North Carolina dial tone for their use in New Orleans.
When police and fire crews arrived from Texas, California and Florida to help out in the affected area, Cisco's NERV also enabled their departments' disparate radio systems to communicate. Using a technology called IP interoperability (IPICS), Cisco engineers programmed the various radio frequencies of the different departments into a “virtual talk group,” creating common ground for communications.
“We had VHF radios talking to UHF radios talking to HF radios,” Browning says. “And then we added our own IP phones and PCs into that mix.”
Preparing for Disaster
Communications companies say Katrina served as a giant classroom for them, setting the stage for future emergency responses. Cisco, for example, used NERV vehicles based in Chevy Suburbans at Katrina and have since upgraded to huge mobile vehicles measuring 33 ft long, 13.5 ft high and 8 ft wide, packed with different communications technologies.
“In examining the responses at Katrina, the one group that stood out was the U.S. Coast Guard,” Browning says. “They did the same thing they do every day and the result was consistent, repeatable and reliable. So when we built our vehicles, we configured them so that whatever we do, wherever we show up, our response will be consistent, repeatable and reliable.”
Browning adds, Cisco has set up tactical operations teams to support the people who go out to disaster sites. When those teams go out, he says, tactical operations will ensure they have enough food, fuel and water. Equipment will be staged in the proper places and teams will be ready to move in as soon as weather allows. The learning process was evident earlier this year, when Hurricane Dean threatened, he says.
“When Hurricane Dean was heading for the Gulf Coast, we had our vehicles packed and our people had their bags packed,” Browning says. “We were ready to launch ahead of time, so that we would be there in hours, not days.”