Recovery

Will Your Cell Service Work if a Hurricane Rolls Through the Coast, and Will It Be Enough?

For many Coast residents, cellphone service was spotty, at best, in the days and weeks after Hurricane Katrina. And internet service for phones was practically nonexistent.

by Jeff Clark, The Sun Herald / June 18, 2018

(TNS) — In the 13 years since Hurricane Katrina hit South Mississippi, much has changed.

A quick drive down U.S. 90 is a constant reminder of the past — the things that are new and that have been rebuilt and the places that are memories of life before the storm.

One of the things that changed significantly besides the landscape is technology. Facebook was in its infancy in 2005, having been launched the year before the storm, and most social media users were using MySpace. It would also be another two years before Apple released the iPhone and helped to usher in the era of smartphones and tablets.

For many Coast residents, cellphone service was spotty, at best, in the days and weeks after Hurricane Katrina. And internet service for phones was practically nonexistent.

With Colorado State University’s Tropical Meteorology Project predicting a "busy" hurricane season for 2018, which began June 1, how will cellphone service be affected in South Mississippi?

Lessons from Harvey


When Hurricane Harvey hit the coast of Texas in late August, it brought with it "catastrophic rain" and flooding that caused billions of dollars in damage, especially in and around the Houston area. Fortune reports the storm knocked out 70 percent of the cell towers in affected counties.

According to a report from MySanAntonio.com, Hurricane Harvey knocked out internet and telephones service to almost 200,000 homes, more than 360 cell towers and 16,911 call centers. A study from the Federal Communications Commission shows that about 1,000 cell towers were knocked out during Hurricane Katrina.

But CNet.com reports that the service to the downed cell towers was restored to about half of those customers only a few days after the storm.

More than a cellphone?

JD Ledbetter, interim executive director for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, said the two largest wireless providers on the Coast are AT&T and C Spire. He commended the companies for the steps they have taken to prepare for the next natural disaster in South Mississippi.

“We have met with both C Spire and AT&T and they are both confident they have prepared their infrastructure to quickly recover from a storm," Ledbetter said. "That said we, as the state, always prepare for redundancy. At the government level, we have the Mississippi Wireless Interoperable Network (MSWIN) that is now built out statewide. MSWIN allows responders from across jurisdictions to communicate via hand-held radios to and from an impacted area. We also have satellite phones as another tool to keep communication lines open."

Ledbetter said he also wouldn't rule out having home telephone service.

"As far as landlines for the public, it goes back to redundancy," he said. "If it is economically feasible, we highly recommend the public have both landlines and cellphones available. Never become reliant on just one tool, whether it’s for communicating or receiving alerts and warnings.”

AT&T's plan

From 2013 to 2015, AT&T invested more than $875 million in its Mississippi wireless and wired networks to upgrade reliability, coverage, speed and overall performance. As of 2016, the company had invested $600 million in a Network Disaster Recovery team that had 300 technology and equipment trailers ready to deploy where needed.

In an email statement from AT&T, the company said it feels confident it can get cellphone service restored more quickly than after Hurricane Katrina.

"We are committed to keeping our customers connected during the upcoming hurricane season and have already taken steps to prepare.

"Since Hurricane Katrina, we have improved the resiliency of our network and have increased the number of fixed generators at cell sites, in the event of power loss. And because of policies adopted since in Mississippi, we can respond more quickly and efficiently to impacted areas. Our network teams are prepared with a fleet of mobile cell towers to connect customers and emergency responders in the event of a disaster."

Training for disasters

When Katrina hit in 2005, Mississippi-based C Spire was then known as Cellular South. Ole Miss football great Archie Manning made the first Cellular South call from Gulfport to Washington, D.C., in 1988 to then-Rep. Trent Lott.

"We were the first company to be back on 100 percent after Katrina," Keith Paglusch, C Spire CNO said. "And we've learned a lot since the storm and we are always looking for ways to improve."

Among the improvements the wireless company has implemented include backup generators for most towers, as well as having more portable generators ready to roll in case of a disaster.

"Getting our service back up is the top priority and I think we are better prepared," Paglusch said. "We've been doing drills and training and our team gets better every day and we've learned and we've grown since Hurricane Katrina."

C Spire also is implementing a new public safety data priority service designed to help local and state emergency first responders. The free service gives emergency personnel access to data on the C Spire network.

“In an emergency situation, essential voice and data communications are critical for public safety and emergency responders who need to get through as fast as possible,” Paglusch said.

Sprint and Verizon customers

Sprint is another major wireless provider in South Mississippi. Sprint public relations director Roni Singleton said the company has invested in "new cell sites and small cell technology," pumps for towers that could become flooded, and reviewed "portable generator storage locations and adjusted fleet count."

"In advance of major weather events like hurricanes, we do an enormous amount of prep work in areas prone to significant weather situations such as the Gulf Coast," Singleton said. "These tasks include topping off fixed and portable emergency back-up generators for our cell sites, pre-staging equipment, people and other resources to help ensure we can provide wireless services for our customers before, during and after a natural disaster."

Singleton said one the critical issues that will affect wireless service after a major storm is a lack of power.

"Wireless carriers like Sprint depend on various entities that provide commercial power, backhaul and wireline services," Singleton said. "While back-up batteries and generators can keep a cell site running for additional hours and even a couple of days, the ongoing loss of commercial power and local wireline service can result in a disruption of service. In the event a cell site does lose functionality due to prolonged power loss, or an area is particularly hard hit by the storm, we have our fleet of mobile resources that we can bring in to help provide sufficient coverage to the area."

Jeannine Brew of Verizon said the company has invested in a network that will recover quickly should a hurricane hit the Gulf Coast.

"The Verizon network team works year-round preparing for hurricanes and other disasters," she said. "We’ve built a network that stands up to the most extreme circumstances and includes switch operation centers, equipment depot and cell sites built to withstand a wide range of natural disasters as well as a fleet of mobile equipment and drones that help with recovery efforts and much more.

"Where Verizon owns and operates a network, despite wide-scale power outages and severe water damage, Verizon’s network performed exceptionally well. "

Brew said 98 percent of Verizon customers remained operational after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas.

Jeff Clark: 228-896-2329, @thejeffclark

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