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Cell providers returning service to New Orleans

ST. ROSE, La.—Cell phones are gradually coming back to life in New Orleans.

Cingular, the nation's largest provider of wireless services, said calls are going through in New Orleans, but at reduced levels. Verizon Wireless said it was getting coverage restored in some parts of the city, but repairs are increasingly difficult.

"We're starting to hit the hard part—the areas where there was more damage and more disruption," Verizon spokesman Patrick Kimball said.

Hurricane Katrina hit cell-phone providers at every step of the transmission chain.

The hurricane's winds damaged some cell towers and other facilities that house the sites that transmit calls. The failure of the power system robbed cell providers of the electricity they need to run their cell sites. Floodwaters isolated many cell sites, making it impossible to repair them, and swamped a vital "switching center" that routes calls. Finally, the damage to land lines cripples cell providers as much as it does traditional phone providers.

"What you had down there was essentially an apocalypse," said Mark Siegel, a spokesman for Cingular.

In the days immediately after the storm, cell coverage in New Orleans was haphazard at best. People swapped cell phones, because some providers worked in some parts of the city, while others worked elsewhere. But most calls didn't go out.

Satellite phones—which bounce signals to satellites and then back to Earth—were necessary for many communications in and out of the city, although there were a handful of land lines in parts of the city that worked sporadically.

Even right after the storm, one viable cell option was text messaging. Residents who knew how to send text messages found they could get those messages in and out of the city, although those messages are by necessity very short. Text messages take up a fraction of the bandwidth as cell conversations and don't require a dedicated circuit, so they can be sent in bursts, or packets, of information.

In the days since the storm, Cingular service in Jackson, Miss., Mobile, Ala., and other outlying areas has been fully restored, Siegel said. Service in Biloxi, Miss., is "substantially restored," Siegel said.

In New Orleans, 50 percent of the city now has coverage, Cingular said.

Cingular has 800 technicians, 500 portable generators and 800,000 gallons of fuel in or ready to be put into service in the entire disaster region. It also has mobile cell sites—COWs, or cells on wheels—that it can put into place.

The company's emergency plan called for it to bring back-up power sources to staging areas outside the hurricane area and then move them in as soon after the hurricane as possible.

"We knew the storm was coming, and we had the generators in staging areas ready to go," Siegel said.

Meanwhile, just beyond the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport in a town called St. Rose, Cingular workers are working frantically to boost the capacity of a switching center. The company's other New Orleans-area center is in the floodwaters in Jefferson Parish. At that center, workers float in by boat daily to see what can be salvaged from the building's second floor.

"The first floor is dead," said Terry Kimes, Cingular's manager of operations at the switching center that remains in service. About 20 of his workers have been sleeping on inflatable mattresses as they install new equipment to help compensate for the loss of the other center.

The low-slung white building, filled with electronics and telephony equipment, is also stocked with cases of Gatorade, baked beans and snacks. On Wednesday, a washer and dryer were delivered. The building's only hurricane damage was a roof leak, which flooded non-critical parts of the building with an inch of water.

Fully repairing the cell networks in New Orleans will take some time, since many cell sites remain isolated behind floodwaters.

Workers also faced safety obstacles. "We have had crews who were the targets of sniper fire," said Joe Farren, a spokesman for trade group CTIA-The Wireless Association.

As waters recede and company workers get in, they'll replace damaged equipment and get power to cell sites that still work, gradually boosting coverage in greater New Orleans.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): WEA-KATRINA

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