Wireless Broadband Rises to Challenge Land Lines
As telephone and wireless companies scramble to repair their hurricane-battered networks along the Gulf Coast, some of them are calling up the future.
Wireless broadband -- high-speed Internet connections that transmit voice calls and data -- is being set up for emergency crews in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast as well as for residents in Mississippi’s Biloxi-Gulfport area.
For the record:
12:00 AM, Sep. 15, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 15, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 3 inches; 98 words Type of Material: Correction
Wireless communications -- An article in Friday’s Business section about the installation of wireless networks in the Gulf Coast region said Intel Corp. was rushing wireless gear to decommissioned Kelly Air Force Base outside San Antonio, where thousands of evacuees from Hurricane Katrina were arriving, because no phone lines were available. Intel, responding to requests from the American Red Cross, learned over the weekend as the gear arrived that SBC Communications Inc. already had installed 100 phone lines and more than 50 Internet lines. The wireless gear was then shipped to the Mississippi Gulf Coast for use there.
Networks relying on such technologies as Wi-Fi and WiMax can be established faster and more cheaply than crews can right telephone poles and cellular towers or bail water out of flooded switching stations.
And they are heralded by some as successors to the nation’s extensive, but antiquated, tangle of copper telephone lines and the metal forest of mobile phone towers.
“Why not build the next-generation phone system now?” asked Mohammad S. Shakouri, an executive at wireless gear maker Alvarion Inc. and an official in the trade group WiMax Forum.
Shakouri and other industry experts contend that the devastation of Hurricane Katrina offers a chance to build the sort of modern network that phone and cable companies have promised for years. Such a network -- whether wireless or fiber-optic -- could deliver movies or medical records at speeds hundreds of times faster than current Internet connections.
Telecom executives and analysts, though, aren’t so sure it’s the right time or place.
“Having wireless broadband would help some of these disaster situations,” said Forrester Research Inc. analyst Charles Golvin. “But it’s not the panacea.”
At BellSouth Corp., Chief Technology Officer Bill Smith said the first priority was to restore phone service quickly to the thousands still cut off. “The best thing for us economically and the quickest thing from a customer service view is, if the lines are just down, put them back up,” he said.
The company considered installing wireless broadband in rebuilding, Smith said, but it found that it could recover most of its fiber network. The technologies will be used eventually. “I’m a big fan of WiMax,” he said.
So are thousands of rescue workers and evacuees.
Wireless allows people at Red Cross centers nationwide to check in with loved ones by e-mail or phone calls and to seek federal aid online. Residents still in Biloxi and Gulfport will be able to do the same as early as Saturday.
“Wireless broadband is not a mainstream service yet,” said Chris Rittler, a vice president at wireless gear maker Tropos Networks Inc. “But with the mass destruction there, it’s going to play a key role in communications.”
And it is likely to do so for weeks, exposing thousands of people to uses beyond trolling the Internet in a coffee shop.
“One of the huge advantages to wireless broadband is that you can get it up and running really quickly,” said Lindsay Schroth of research firm Yankee Group. “But how it develops in the long term there depends on how badly the infrastructure is damaged, and we don’t know the answer to that yet.”
SkyTel Corp., a division of long-distance carrier MCI Inc., opened a wireless site Thursday at the Lamar Dixon trade center outside Baton Rouge, La., where state and federal workers process New Orleans evacuees. “Government people were all smiles and just elated that they had Internet service again,” said SkyTel’s president, Bruce Deer.
He said he expected to have a Wi-Fi mesh system -- a network with numerous antennas, or nodes, to reroute traffic quickly -- running by Monday in downtown New Orleans at the Louis Armstrong International Airport and in the Biloxi-Gulfport area. Such a system would give rescue workers and residents a constant connection to the outside world.
“At some point, from a strategic vision, it would be an objective to have the city and the Gulf Coast entirely covered,” Deer said. “But we’re going to do a handful of cities first.”
Wi-Fi, typically used as high-speed hot spots in coffeehouses, bookstores and airports, also is being used with mesh technology and with boosted signals to cover wide areas, including entire cities. Antennas need to be in sight of others on the network to provide service. WiMax is designed to carry much more traffic over greater distances and doesn’t require a line of sight to be established.
Intel Corp., a key backer of WiMax, is sending wireless gear to the disaster area as well as to 200 Red Cross sites nationwide. The company also is sending 4,000 laptops to those sites.
In most cases, the wireless network is being installed alongside land-line networks. But at the decommissioned Kelly Air Force Base outside San Antonio, where thousands of evacuees are being taken, no phone lines are available.
The Federal Communications Commission gave the go-ahead for a nonprofit to set up a Wi-Fi network at the base.
“But they didn’t have a high-capacity [connection] to the public Internet,” said Nigel Ballard, an Intel executive. Intel sent gear that should arrive today to set up WiMax antennas to move phone calls and e-mail to the public networks.
A host of other technology companies -- giants such as Cisco Systems Inc. and Avaya Inc. as well as smaller ones such as mobile broadband wireless firm Freedom4Wireless Inc. -- also are shipping wireless equipment and providing technical help at centers such as the Houston Astrodome as well as in disaster areas.
At the Stennis Space Center, about nine miles north of the destroyed Mississippi port town of Bay St. Louis, AT&T; Corp. had set up a satellite link for emergency crews and temporary evacuees, including employees.
On the first night, a center employee asked to use the high-speed link to fax 75 pages of time sheets to NASA, said Ken Smith, director of AT&T;'s disaster recovery team. “Without it, the employees wouldn’t get paid on time,” he said.
BellSouth is watching the deployments to see how wireless will fit into its rebuilding efforts.
The company expects to spend as much as $600 million to restore service on nearly half its 4.9 million lines in the gulf region and to 24 central offices, where local lines connect to the public phone network. Wireless, Smith said, is likely to complement the company’s existing plans to install more fiber-optic lines.
BellSouth has been installing high-speed fiber close to homes in its nine-state region to help it compete with cable TV firms.
In areas with extreme damage where buildings will be replaced, BellSouth will bring fiber to the new structures, he said.
“There’s not a one-size-fits-all answer,” Smith said. “In an area like Pass Christian [Miss.], where every home was destroyed, we’ll match restoration efforts to those of the community. When the community’s ready, we’ll be ready.”