Phones Still Down As New Orleans Remains Shut Off

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Phone service remains down in the New Orleans area as repair crews from the various carriers have yet to receive clearance to enter the hurricane-ravaged city. Flooding in the below-sea level city has made it unsafe to enter, and so it’s difficult for carriers to gauge the extent of the trouble. Sprint Nextel Inc. , for instance, has a long-distance switch in New Orleans that has powered down and suffered water damage, but the company has no way to examine it.


“Right now, the situation in New Orleans is such that we’re waiting for law enforcement to give clearance to enter New Orleans,” said Sprint spokesman John Taylor. “Until then we won’t be able to assess the damage.”

The flooding and power outage mean phone service in the city likely won’t return for a while. Work is being done, however, in the other affected areas.

Sprint, who is basing its recovery efforts in Baton Rouge, La., has 100 engineers on site. The company is preparing to roll out mobile cell sites in an effort to boost cellular capacity in areas where the wireless infrastructure is knocked out. Taylor said Sprint is working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to determine the most crucial areas to set up the cell sites, which should be deployed by the end of Thursday or early Friday.

Sprint’s job is complicated because it runs two mobile networks – one using Sprint’s technology and another running on Nextel technology. In addition to Louisiana, service was also disrupted in Mississippi and Alabama, but there has been marked improvement.

The loss of the New Orleans long-distance switch has meant disrupted calls in the Florida panhandle. Sprint is rerouting those calls to centers in Orlando, Fla., and Atlanta, and about half the calls are going through. Taylor said that customers will likely need to make multiple calls before they connect. Local calls in the area is “approaching near-normal conditions,” he added.

Likewise, Cingular Wireless is restricted from entering and making repairs in the New Orleans area. It still has disruptions in several cities in Mississippi. While some customers are able to send and receive calls, they are on a limited basis.

Cingular has restored service in parts of Alabama, while Baton Rouge is almost fully restored.

“We’ve made significant progress in restoring cell phone service,” said spokesman Clay Owen. “But we continue to have issues in New Orleans, where we have the biggest problem.”

Cingular is rolling out its own mobile cell sites, as well as bringing in back-up generators and additional fuel.