Cell operators work to restore networks in New Orleans

Mobile operators continue their efforts to restore service in the area hit by Hurricane Katrina. T-Mobile USA Inc. appears to be offering the most coverage in New Orleans, a city that is still underwater and dangerous to enter.

By Saturday, T-Mobile had opened a cell site on top of the Crowne Plaza Hotel Astor on Canal Street in downtown New Orleans. That site plus several others in the area are providing coverage in the French Quarter, the convention center, the Superdome and the airport in New Orleans. T-Mobile technicians have been able to enter the city and work on cell sites under the escort of the U.S. National Guard.

On Monday, Verizon Wireless Inc. said it was offering only limited coverage in central New Orleans but had restored service at the airport and areas to the southwest of the city. Technicians are preparing to be escorted into the city center to work on repairing the company’s network there, Verizon said Monday.

Cingular Wireless LLC has crews on the ground in New Orleans, where some calls are being supported through the city but at reduced levels. Sprint Nextel Corp., meanwhile, called the situation in New Orleans “tenuous” due to the challenges from continued flooding and safety issues.

Many of the operators have deployed cell sites on wheels, mobile cell sites that can be quickly moved into an area to either boost network capacity or extend service to uncovered regions. Cingular is using 30 cells on wheels and Verizon has almost 20 in the region.

T-Mobile’s New Orleans switching facility operated throughout the hurricane and continues to support calls. After the hurricane hit, T-Mobile airlifted supplies, technicians and fuel, with the help of local law enforcement, to keep the switch up and running.

Many of the operators are also donating or loaning cell phones to emergency workers as well as local residents in an effort to support relief efforts and to help reunite families.

T-Mobile, Cingular and Verizon are all offering free phone calls to people affected by the hurricane at their retail locations. Sprint Nextel said it will soon offer details of its pricing and billing policy for people in the region.

Verizon and T-Mobile are suggesting that customers consider using text messaging instead of making voice calls. When networks are heavily loaded, users may not be able to make voice calls but since data is transmitted essentially when space is available on the network, text messages have a better chance of eventually getting through.

Independently, wireless enthusiasts at a group called Community Wireless have begun travelling to the Gulf Coast region to help set up wireless networks, likely based on Wi-Fi, as well as a low-power FM radio station in an effort to help affected people and emergency response efforts.

Related links:

Katrina aftermath: Beware of e-looters

Katrina tests net service providers

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