HurricaneKatrinaHeadingNOLAHas a group of companies ever patted themselves on the back more than telecom’s have post-Hurricane Katrina? AT&T has spent most of the last few weeks telling the world how great they were during/after the storm. Apparently, according to AT&T, their network was restored in 48 hours!

Now, let me be very clear….this post is not me claiming that AT&T and others should be 100% prepared for some of the country’s worst disasters. I understand that cellular networks and infrastructure is incredibly hard to keep up during and after a disaster hits.

What I am annoyed about are the countless articles from telecommunication companies who failed miserably during the storm (which, again, I understand can happen during monster storms) yet now are claiming how great they were during and after the storm. At what point do they realize that the storm wasn’t and isn’t about them?

I am a New Orleans resident. I was living in the city when the storm hit. I was also an AT&T customer at the time. The idea that any of the telecommunications companies did a great job is annoying to just about anyone who went through the disaster and was without any cellular service for weeks and much longer for broadband.

So imagine my annoyance when I saw a PDF entitled “AT&T’s Support for Hurricane Katrina Victims”. In the PDF, AT&T talks about how great they acted in the aftermath of the storm hitting the Gulf Coast in 2005. According to AT&T, they were on top of all information related to Hurricane Katrina, helped with infrastructure and communications needs and “immediately assessed and met the most crucial communications needs for evacuees, American Red Cross, FEMA and other relief agencies”. AT&T also points out that they changed their web-site to “provide crucial relief numbers and links”.

ATTKatrinaRemembersAll of those things are great and very much appreciated. But the fact still remains that AT&T’s network was down for just about every resident in Southeast Louisiana. Whether it was Baton Rouge, New Orleans, New Iberia, etc….I talked to many AT&T residents who had no reception whatsoever for weeks after the storm. It is important to note that while AT&T lost a significant amount of infrastructure, they have also admitted that after the storm “some” of their power stations were still running on battery power….and yet their network was still non-existent for customers. As one parish chairman noted, “you’re wasting your time trying to work through a cell tower.”

When people began moving back to New Orleans weeks after the storm, very few had actual broadband availability. Some, such as myself, went several months without any high-speed broadband. I am not complaining that I didn’t have immediate access to broadband. I had no issue with waiting for it. But after months of waiting, it became necessary for school and work.

The city of New Orleans got so desperate to give decent internet access to residents that they proposed a “metro-scale wireless broadband network with an intent to deliver free public internet service alongside communications for government and emergency services.”

Who didn’t like this?

BellSouth, which merged with AT&T in 2007, vigorously opposed the expansion[5] and threatened the city with legal action if the free New Orleans municipal WiFi network continued to be operated by the city.

In fact, BellSouth (AT&T) was so angry at the city trying to ACTUALLY give residents internet connectivity that they threatened to withdraw “an offer to donate one of its damaged buildings that would have housed new police headquarters.” This threat didn’t occur years after the storm. BellSouth made this threat as New Orleans police CONTINUED to be “scattered in hotels, precinct stations and other makeshift locations since the headquarters was ruined in the hurricane.”

Considering the city was already financially broke and still trying to find ways to pay for basic utilities, New Orleans decided to eventually sell that network to a third-party company. Meanwhile, residents like myself continued to struggle to get dial-up speeds for the next few months in/around the city.

Washington Post
Washington Post

AT&T hasn’t helped themselves since the storm either. In 2007, AT&T was called out for editing out a part of Eddie Vetter’s WebCast that blasted a number of people/groups for their delayed reaction to Hurricane Katrina. In 2013, one resident pointed out that AT&T was still using telecommunication boxes found on residents properties that were installed strictly for the New Orleans Police Department’s Special Forces after Hurricane Katrina.

When the FCC realized how many cell-phone towers stopped working after the storm due to the lack of power, they proposed a plan in 2007 that required eight hours of backup power on every cell-phone tower in the country. It caught significant opposition. Who exactly would reject this proposal even after the massive failure post-Katrina?

AT&T, BellSouth and other carriers earlier had argued against requiring specific provisions for keeping service available after disasters. – PCWorld

The excuse by the carriers was that it was too expensive. With revenues of more than $30B in 2007, that is completely understandable that AT&T found extra generators too much of an expense with such a tight budget.

After 9/11, all telecommunications companies promised to completely revamp their networks for emergencies. How did that work out during Hurricane Katrina?

I am here today out of frustration, and out of hope.  The frustration comes from the fact that six years after 9/11 and nearly two years after Hurricane Katrina, we are no closer to giving our brave first responders the basic communications tools they need to save lives and respond to disasters. In the wake of Katrina, I was honored to serve as chair of Governor Haley Barbour’s Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal in Mississippi … My role on the commission exposed me to the shared frustration among police officers, firefighters and search and rescue teams who were forced to resort to using human runners in order to coordinate an emergency response to the largest natural disaster in our nation’s history.  This frustration runs deep because it was the same problem – the same problem! – that the Nation witnessed in the wake of the 9/11 disaster. Testimony of James Barksdale, Frontline Wireless, LLC

For years after Hurricane Katrina, AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and others again promised emergency changes in the aftermath of disasters. If a major disaster strikes, the carriers will share resources, help each other, etc…all helping those customers in/near the affected areas.

HurricaneSandyVerizonNotSo how did they do in the following years? In 2011, Washington DC residents dealt with a minor earthquake….how did the networks hold up?

“Cell phone and landline customers experienced connection problems after Tuesday’s earthquake … Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile did not immediately report infrastructure damage, although representatives said their networks were congested as the quake sent people scrambling for their phones … The congestion was reminiscent, on a much smaller scale, to the frenzy that clogged cellular networks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.” – Huffington Post

In 2012, the Northeast part of the country was hit by a major snow storm….how did the networks hold up?

Storm – “Much of lower Manhattan is without wireless or wireline service, and mobile phone users throughout the city complained on Twitter about service problems that seem to be increasing with time.” – Wall Street Journal

In 2013, Boston was hit by terrorism….how did the networks hold up?

Widespread problems with cellphone service around Boston on Monday after the Marathon bombings put the limits of the nation’s wireless network into sharp relief, as the nation’s top carriers were unable to cope under the heaviest loads during the most crucial moments. Verizon Wireless, AT&T, and Sprint were all overwhelmed by the surge in traffic, leaving many at the scene of the explosions unable to contact family or friends, and blocked other callers in the area or outside Boston from checking on those attending the Marathon … And wireless networks have not been able to withstand sudden increases in calling loads during natural disasters such as hurricanes Sandy and Irene, the earthquake in Virginia in 2011, or the attack in Boston on Monday. – Boston Globe

Maybe I am being too hard on AT&T. It isn’t as if AT&T has ever had a software glitch shut down more than half of their network traffic. Oh, wait.