In a Post-Katrina World, Getting Calls Through
Why does phone service stop working at times when we most need to communicate? Some companies are deploying new technologies that should prevent future outages, or at least help restore service faster.
FORTUNE Friday, September 9, 2005 By Stephanie N. Mehta
In the scary hours after the attacks on the World Trade Center, New Yorkers could be found queued up at pay telephones, clutching impotent cellphones in their hands. During the blackouts of 2003, callers trying to reach friends and family on the East Coast often got busy signals-a rare phenomenon in this age of call waiting and voicemail. And Hurricane Katrina initially knocked out or at least interrupted service to hundreds of thousands of phone lines, according to BellSouth, the dominant phone company in the Gulf region-and the carrier is still struggling to restore many of those lines. Indeed, it seems at the very times many Americans have most desperately needed to communicate, the nation's phone networks have failed.
Why does this happen? In the case of Hurricane Katrina, some of the massive computers used to route and connect calls were wiped out by flooding; in other instances the actual phone lines were cut or damaged by the storm. And wired and wireless networks alike sputtered when the backup generators running their switching systems-remember, much of the region had no electrical power-ran out of fuel or were themselves damaged by the floods. In other crises, networks simply were overloaded or critical equipment broke down.
Now, some regulators and consumers are asking a simple question: How can we build a better phone network-one that withstands the rigors of disasters such as Hurricane Katrina or the attacks of September 11? Companies such as Lucent Technologies, which supply to the big phone companies, say they already are improving communications networks based on the lessons from previous disasters. "Prior to 9/11 our idea of disaster recovery was dealing with a fire in a central office," admits Nick De Tura, vice president of North American customer operations of Lucent Technologies. (A central office is a hub that houses a carrier's switching equipment and phone lines that serve a neighborhood.) "Now every service we develop is built with an eye toward speed and flexibility" for moving phone calls onto working networks. Indeed, some companies and their competitors already are deploying some new technologies that will prevent future phone outages, or at least help restore service faster. Of course, even the newest technologies still require power and perhaps shelter, making them also vulnerable to Katrina-like forces. But here's a look at a handful of advancements that are making communications more disaster-resistant-or at least more disaster-resilient.
VOIP: With many voice-over-Internet Protocol systems, users simply need access to a broadband network in order to make and receive calls using their assigned home numbers-even if they're no longer at home. With VOIP, calls are transmitted in the language of the Internet, or "packets," so they don't have to travel over a traditional copper telephone wire. Also, users are assigned an Internet Protocol address, which isn't location-sensitive. Say a family relocated from Biloxi to Houston. They could take their VOIP phone along (or a special adapter that comes with most VOIP systems), and once they gained access to a broadband system-a cable modem or DSL line, for example-they'd be able to receive calls from worried friends and relatives on their home number. "It would be the same service they had before," says Mike Hluchyj, founder and CTO of Sonus Networks, which helps phone companies deploy VOIP calling services. "The device automatically configures the service-they don't even have to involve any personnel within the phone company." Still, in the most severely devastated parts of the Gulf Coast, VOIP phones wouldn't have been much help for the stranded, because broadband connections were totally wiped out.
Wi-Fi: One technology that may help get broadband systems back up and running is Wi-Fi, the same wireless standard you may use to get Internet access for your laptop at coffee shops and airports. Tropos, one of a handful of upstarts that sells wireless systems covering entire cities, says Wi-Fi (which operates on the same unlicensed spectrum that cordless phones and microwaves use) is robust enough to provide broadband service when wired networks fail. The company's gear is configured so that its wireless antennas all talk to each other, which can allow users to access the service even if the nearest wired network is 100 miles away. "We can provide broadband wireless access with limited need for wires," says Chris Rittler, vice president of product development for Tropos, which is just starting to work with officials in the Gulf region. "It is a great application in light of a horrible event." One big limitation: You need a special Wi-Fi modem in order to connect to a Wi-Fi network. While most new laptops are equipped, few desktops are, and Wi-Fi phones-cordless phones that can talk to Wi-Fi networks-are just starting to hit the market.
Softswitches: As more phone companies move voice traffic onto Internet networks, many are starting to replace their traditional switches-massive computers that take up entire rooms and guzzle power-with smaller, software-driven machines that consume less power. So if generators or batteries kick in, these "softswitches" can stay operational longer. Also, phone companies typically can redirect traffic traveling through a softswitch more easily, allowing technicians to remotely program the switch to move traffic away from damaged lines and onto working networks. However, phone companies like BellSouth, SBC Communications, Verizon and Qwest have invested billions of dollars in their traditional switching infrastructure, and it will take years for them to migrate completely to softswitches and other new equipment. Disasters such as Katrina, however, may just end up accelerating those purchases.
Copyright 2005 Time Inc.
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