Most all of us have been fixated on the disaster in the Gulf Coast over the last few weeks. The destruction is something one would expect to see in a war zone with a significant portion of the communications infrastructure having been wiped out.

According to this article, we see the following damage as being reported to the FCC.

  • More than a thousand wireless towers were knocked down
  • Over 11,000 utility poles are down, 26,000 spans of cable are down, 22,000 line drops are down
  • Out of the 578 central offices in Hurricane-affected states, 545 remained in service.
  • The loss of connectivity on the wireline network quickly spilled over to the wireless networks.
  • Over 100 broadcast stations were knocked off the air.
  • Only 2 AM and 2 FM radio stations in New Orleans remained on the air following the hurricane. These local radio stations were the only way only getting news out during the crisis.
  • BellSouth estimates the damage at $400 to $600 million and will have to bear these costs now as it redeploys equipment.

    No matter how you view this disaster one thing is clear, the current infrastructure is incapable of handling the weather conditions it occasionally runs across. Of course, that won’t stop Bell South from rebuilding the very same infrastructure to replace it.

    Let’s take a look at what the real cost to you (after all, you really don’t think Bell South is going to pay for this out of their pocket, do you?) and what value you are getting for your money.

    Bell South estimates the damage to be $400 to $600 million to replace and upgrade the damaged infrastructure. While there has been nothing specifically said, there does not seem to be any losses calculated as to lost business revenue, or lost revenue going forward. That’s right, Bell South is going to lose customers to WISPs and other independent connectivity suppliers that did manage to keep their connections up and running. If we add in these factors and then factor in the additional damage that Rita caused (remember, the above testimony was after Katrina but before Rita) we can assume that Bell South alone will stand to lose a billion dollars plus when all is said and done.

    This estimate does not include the cost to the local television and radio broadcast industry, police and fire depatrtments or the Cell Phone providers, among others.

    One thing that was certainly conspicuous in its absence in the above testimony is the length of time Bell South estimates it will take them to repair the damage – especially considering that many of their local employees were also victims of the storm, losing homes and property. In other words, how long will some of Bell South’s worst case customers be without service?

    Perhaps, the most difficult question to ask is how long before this happens again? When will the next big storm hit? For this “investment” of a half billion dollars will we end up with a communications network that will be able to withstand the next category 5 hurricane? I would submit that the answer is no. In fact, if next year’s hurricane season produces another devastating storm like Katrina (and it seems likely this could happen) what have we earned for our money? The reality is not one damn thing.

    What could we do differently? More importantly, what should we do differently?

    How about this?

    I am proposing we engineer and build a network of wireless towers capable of withstanding a category 5 hurricane that can accommodate not just phone but Internet, first responder traffic, police, fire, radio, television, LMDS, MMDS, along with WiFi hot spot connectivity. These towers would need to be built on an five to eight mile grid, connected by licensed, carrier grade, microwave links and supplied with backup electrical power that could last for weeks without attention.

    If we were to look at the shared cost of rebuilding the infrastructure of all of the above services we can see that the total cost of a project like what I am proposing would be more expensive that each of these services being rolled out individually but this would be quickly recouped the next time there is a massive storm and the payback would continue on through every storm from then on out.

    This proposal isn’t a cure all for every one of the problems faced by the telecommunications industry during this last round of crisis. One of the glaring omissions is how we supply power to each customer because even if the cell phone network had remained functional the cell phones themselves would not have had the power to last for the length of time necessary. There are many of other issues that need to be looked at and addressed but there certainly isn’t space for all of them here.

    Of course, this only addresses the technical side of the issue, completely leaving out the benefit to people. Would there have been a real value to the population of New Orleans (and many other areas) if their communications had functioned? Would the desperation many faced have been lessened if they could have called for help, spoken to their loved ones, gotten an idea when help was coming or simply not been stranded, alone, isolated from the outside world? I will leave that up to you to decide and place a value on what that means to you as an individual.

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