“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is an axiom well ingrained in the public-safety community ever since Benjamin Franklin used the saying in defense of public fire departments. This mentality has shown its worth again in the wake of high winds and flooding brought on by Hurricane Ida across Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Making landfall on the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, what had the potential to be another catastrophic storm was largely mitigated by lessons learned from the 2005 storm—with wireless providers stepping up to bolster network resiliency through effective disaster response efforts. Carefully crafted disaster response plans enabled the wireless industry to rapidly respond to network outages and keep the majority of their cell sites online during Hurricane Ida, even as large swaths of the state experienced power and other infrastructure disruption. Seventy-two hours after the storm made landfall, almost half of the sites taken offline were fully operational, and mobile service has largely returned to normal. Wireless providers have proved, once again, that wireless is unmatched in its ability to maintain and restore communications quickly in the face of natural disasters.
As the storm gathered strength off the coast of the United States, wireless carriers were strengthening physical barriers and staging emergency assets and engineering teams to ensure minimal disruption to networks. Steps taken included fueling backup generators and confirming that high-capacity batteries were in working order to keep antennas online if power disruptions occurred. Satellite-linked cells on trucks were also brought in from across the country to supplement downed infrastructure, while critical infrastructure was hardened against flooding.
To ensure people could get in contact during the emergency, AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile provided unlimited calling, texting, and data for consumers and small businesses as well as waiving overage fees. AT&T, the national sponsor of FirstNet—a nationwide wireless broadband communications platform dedicated to first responders and the public-safety community—also provided dedicated FirstNet deployable assets to ensure first responders had the capacity to facilitate any aid that was needed. These steps are second nature for many of our nation’s carriers and telecommunications providers due to collaborative efforts to create best practices, such as the recommendations of the Disaster Response and Recovery Working Group, convened under the FCC’s Broadband Deployment Advisor Committee.
As the storm passed through the area and damage was able to be assessed, preparation became action as the wireless industry hit the ground running to patch holes in networks and restore connectivity. Mobile satellite cell towers were brought online while other emergency assets, such as cells on trucks and drones, were deployed across affected areas. In areas where power was disrupted, backup generators came to life, keeping networks active for first responders and emergency communications where needed. Network engineers were also fast at work rerouting wireless traffic through areas less impacted by the storm. In counties hardest hit by the storm, like Orleans and St. John Parish, 9-1-1 calls were rerouted to nearby Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) that were fully operational.
Careful planning and fast response paid off as the storm cleared and water receded. All three nationwide carriers reported that, through redundant network architecture, fixed and mobile backup power generators, and mobile assets, most individuals who had not evacuated along with first responders only experienced minimal service interruptions. On August 31st, nine impacted PSAPs were able to reroute traffic or able to continue with modified operations, while only three PSAPs reported not having 9-1-1 services. By September 1st, four PSAPs were reporting impacted service, only one of which was fully offline. As of September 2nd, no counties were reporting as not having 9-1-1 services.
Overall, less than 30% of cell sites across Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi were taken offline by Hurricane Ida. Thanks to tireless efforts by the wireless industry, that number was down to just 12.7% by September 1st . In coastal Louisiana, among the counties hit hardest by the storm, cell site outages peaked at just over 52% on August 30th. Within 48 hours, nearly half of those sites had been restored. Among coastal counties in Mississippi, the second hardest hit area, outages peaked at 13.9% on August 30th and were down to just 1.1% by September 1st. Just three days later, all of the damaged cell sites in Alabama and Mississippi had been restored, while all but the hardest to reach outages in Louisiana were brought back online. Thanks to redundant network architecture, even with these few cell sites offline service disruption is at a minimum.
These numbers demonstrate the resiliency of wireless infrastructure and the efficacy of response plans carried out by the dedicated wireless workforce. Across all three states, cell sites that went offline due to damage represent the smallest proportion of impacted infrastructure. Among cell site outages, power supply disruption was responsible for the majority, and these sites were quickly brought back online as power was restored. Comparatively, wireline infrastructure outages in the same area continues to rise while wireless carriers report that, with few exceptions, networks are operating as normal.
Wireless continues to be one of the first lines of defense when disaster strikes; a skilled workforce and consensus-driven best practices ensure that line holds. In the midst of Hurricane Ida, the wireless industry rose to the challenge by keeping consumers connected, distributing information, and enabling first responders to better coordinate their efforts. As this storm continues to have significant impacts on the Northeast, the wireless industry continues to step up and minimize the disruption felt by our communities.
Image courtesy of Verizon Wireless.