NEW YORK – The hurricane bearing down on the Gulf Coast could be a test for the country's wireless carriers, which faced criticism and a regulatory push after Hurricane Katrina took out networks.
Sprint Nextel Corp. spokeswoman Stephanie Vinge-Walsh said the company's Emergency Response Team, with trucks that can act as cell towers, was "caravaning down, military-style," to the Gulf Coast on Friday.
Verizon Wireless has spent $137 million in the past year on enhancing its network in the Gulf Coast area, including doubling its capacity at regional switching centers to handle a barrage of calls when disaster strikes.
"Certainly there were lessons to be learned from Katrina," Verizon Wireless spokeswoman Gretchen LeJeune said. "Preparation for bad weather has been at the top of mind and we prepare for it all year."
AT&T Inc., the main landline phone company in the region and the country's largest wireless carrier, has also added capacity, among a raft of preparations and upgrades to its Gulf Coast infrastructure over several years.
It has replaced some cables that are vulnerable to flooding with waterproof ones. Optical fiber has replaced copper wiring, which can short out when wet.
Tropical Storm Gustav was near Jamaica on Friday, and forecasters said it could hit the Louisiana coast at the beginning of next week as a major hurricane.
If so, wireless networks would have two main vulnerabilities. The cell towers may be unhurt by the buffeting winds of a hurricane, but to keep working, each one needs electrical power and a connection to the larger network, usually via landline.
After Katrina, the Federal Communications Commission seized on the power issue, and sought to mandate that almost all cell sites in the U.S. have at least eight hours of backup power in the event main power fails.
But that requirement has been held up by court challenges from wireless industry association CTIA, Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile USA. The carriers said the FCC failed to follow federal guidelines for creating new mandates and went far beyond its authority in creating the requirement. Requiring each cell site, even in areas that aren't disaster-prone, to have its own backup power is expensive and robs them of the flexibility to deploy generators in more sensitive areas, they said.
T-Mobile representatives did not immediately return calls asking about the readiness of their Gulf Coast networks.
AT&T and Verizon Wireless are not party to the challenges of the FCC regulation except as members of CTIA.
Verizon Wireless said all of its cell sites have batteries that will power them for at least eight hours. Many of them also have generators that kick in when the batteries run down, and have fuel for five to seven days, according to LeJeune. Of the 59 new cell sites Verizon Wireless has set up in the Gulf Coast area since the start of 2007, 85 percent have their own generators, she said.
AT&T said its cell sites in hurricane-prone areas have generators that will power them for up to 36 hours, and it has been topping up the fuel in their tanks this week.
Sprint said it spent $59 million in 2007 to boost its hurricane preparedness, in part to install generators at 1,300 cell sites in the Southeast and on the Gulf Coast. It spent additional $140 million in the first six months this year to reinforce the network in the Gulf Coast states.
Wireless carriers have a zoo of equipment to deploy in areas where their infrastructure has been destroyed, or where emergency responders need extra capacity. Towable cell towers are called Cells on Wheels, or COWs, while Cells on Light Trucks are called COLTs. AT&T calls generators on trailers GOATs.
Gustav could be a communications challenge for emergency responders, who remain split up on incompatible networks. The FCC wanted to tackle that problem by setting aside radio spectrum to be operated by a private company for a national emergency network, but the spectrum band failed to find a bidder in an auction this year.