Cellular Services Brace for Gustav

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With threats that Tropical Storm Gustav will clobber the U.S. Gulf coast, the nation's major cellular network providers say they are prepared, having learned from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina three years ago.

Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel Corp. have separately issued statements saying they each have spent about US$140 million in the Gulf states in the aftermath of Katrina. A spokesman said AT&T Inc. has spent "hundreds of millions" in the Gulf region, both on wired and wireless infrastructure.

The spending was on many areas of emergency management, including the building of new digital cell sites. But a big focus, Sprint said in a statement, has been on maintaining power to cellular operations with various forms of power generators.

"One of the primary reasons for the loss of wireless service in a hurricane is the loss of commercial power to the cell site," Sprint said. In 2007, Sprint spent nearly $60 million on construction of permanent generators at 1,300 locations in the Gulf region to power critical wireless locations and network facilities, as well as for portable generators and cell sites on wheels. If power goes out to a cell site or a group of cell sites, such equipment provides a backup.

Sprint also said it has invested $27 million to expands its emergency response team to aid first responders such as police and firefighters. That group is deploying proprietary technology in the region, called Satellite Cell on Light Trucks, to improve communications among emergency responders. A major concern during Katrina was that emergency personnel could not communicate with one another because of radios running different frequencies or different protocols.

Sprint and Verizon said they have disaster response vehicles at the ready. Verizon said it has a new 35-foot trailer devoted to emergency responses in the region and has added 59 new digital sites in the region, most with their own on-site generators.

AT&T is already activating plans to set up base camps with tents and bathrooms for its Texas-based repair workers to be located at the best spot when Gustav's eventual track becomes clearer. Dan Feldstein, an AT&T spokesman based in Houston, said the carrier has already responded to two hurricanes earlier this season, Dolly and Edouard, and feels better prepared as a result.

"Neither caused terrible damage but they were serious and our crews got a good workout," Feldstein said in a telephone interview. "The crews got in fast with generators and it was very impressive. Every storm that happens, including Katrina, presents lessons to be learned."

One tip: Use text instead of voice

All the cellular providers offered tips to users in the event a storm hits and wireless networks become congested, as they did with Katrina. One of the common tips was to urge users to text instead of using voice if a crisis occurs, since text places less demand on the network.

For landline users, Feldstein said to remember that a cordless phone in the house might not work without power, meaning it might be time to pull out an old conventional phone to load into the phone jack directly, since some power is transmitted over the phone line.

Other tips include carrying extra batteries for your cell phone and to use a car adapter for recharging the phone battery in the car.

This story, "Cellular Services Brace for Gustav" was originally published by Computerworld.

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