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Optical/IP Networks

Observers Tally Storm's Telecom Toll

“Anyway... I finally contact my friend; she is OK in Houston... so sad that she is homeless now... but well... she is alive... thanks God!”

So reads a message from the Vonage Holdings Corp. user bulletin board dated August 29th. And it brings to light one of the hard lessons of Katrina: Most of our fancier communications services like VOIP and cellular are only as reliable as the basic utilities -- like the PSTN and public power -- that underpin them (see Katrina & the Waves).

In the example above, the Vonage user's friend in Houston probably couldn't be reached because of damage to the PSTN in the area, on which Vonage relies to route much of its long-distance traffic.

Pure VOIP systems like Skype (excluding SkypeOut) were’t much more useful, observers say. Those pure VOIP calls don't connect to the PSTN, but they still use an electrically-powered modem. Calls to Skype for usage levels on this story were not returned by deadline.

Captain Ralph Mitchell of the Louisiana State Police tells Light Reading that most people in and around New Orleans are relying more on cell phone communication in the wake of the storm, but even that may be temporary.

Cellular service too is tied to the availablity of power and the PSTN. And cellphones need electricity to recharge. Cell towers need power to transmit calls to the main switch and a connection to the PSTN for getting traffic from the cell cites to the main switch.

The various breakdowns in communications services are a central cause of the poor emergency response to Katrina. Today, the main challenge is evacuating the city, yet as many as 10,000 remain, despite orders from both FEMA and the mayor that everybody must go.

“The problem is that these people are cut off from communications, and they have to be convinced that this problem is really serious,” Mitchell says. "I don’t know if they still have cell phones that work. After all, the storm struck a week ago Saturday; most people don’t have electricity, so I don’t think they have a way to recharge their batteries.”

T-Mobile USA believes many of its users in the storm-affected areas are using cellular text messaging to communicate. Unlike cell phone calls, text messaging traffic relies on microwave signals, not PSTN lines, to get from the cell towers to the main switch in New Orleans. "From there they can be transmitted anywhere," says T-Mobile spokesman Peter Dobrow.

T-Mobile says that calls in and out of its New Orleans market, which extends to surrounding cities Baton Rouge and Slidell, usually number about 1.4 million a day. On the day Katrina hit, August 29, that number fell to 600,000. Many T-Mobile cell towers had gone down in the region, but were soon restored, Dobrow says. The call numbers then rose to 1.1 million on the 30th, then back to 1.4 million on the 31st. Cellular traffic throughout the Gulf Coast region is now “at or exceeding normal usage levels,” according to Dobrow.

Vonage spokeswoman Brooke Schulz says Vonage call volume from the affected region has gone down by about 60 percent since the storm.

"At our New Orleans PSTN connection we saw our inbound traffic from our CLEC partner completely cease at around 1PM on 8/29; it was not turned up again until 7AM on 8/30,” Schulz wrote in an email to Light Reading on Monday. “Our circuits were up and running throughout that time, but no inbound calls were coming through to us during that time.”

While Vonage acknowledges the service outage, it puts the blame on the failure of the local communications infrastructure. Vonage pays a tariff to local CLECs to access the PSTN around the region (see Madison River Eyes Damage).

"If that CLEC goes down or that CLEC gets flooded with calls or if that physical connection is somehow disrupted, we can get the calls into Vonage -- it's not Vonage that goes down -- but the CLEC side can’t get the calls to us,” Schulz says.

In the days following the Katrina’s landfall, local CLECs scrambled to get their infrastructures operable again. But Katrina hit ten days ago, and still most PSTN calls to the Gulf Coast region end with the sound of recorded announcement saying: “Due to the hurricane in the area you are calling...”

Even if the CLEC and the PSTN had been operable, most VOIP users wouldn’t have noticed -- much of the region was without power in the days after Katrina hit. According to statements by local utilities, the power may be off in some areas of New Orleans for many days to come while floodwaters are drained from the city. Capt. Mitchell says 90 percent of New Orleans is still "without basic services."

A Wall Street Journal report Monday estimated 1.8 million phone lines were disabled. Officials say the task of getting communications back to normal could take weeks, partly because much of the damaged infrastructure is still underwater.

The major carrier in the region, BellSouth Corp. (NYSE: BLS), believes as many as 750,000 of its landline customers and millions of cellphone customers were without service across Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi (see BellSouth Assesses Katrina).

— Mark Sullivan, Reporter, Light Reading

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