BellSouth: Carriers are 'first responders'

Carriers need to be given higher priority in disasters because telecommunications infrastructure is so critical to recovery efforts, a high-ranking BellSouth Corp. executive said Monday.

"Our industry really needs first-responder status, because so many of the emergency services personnel are counting on us," said Bill Smith, chief technology officer (CTO) at BellSouth, the carrier that bore the brunt of Hurricane Katrina last month. Smith has discussed the issue with leaders in Washington, D.C., he said.

Though public safety agencies use wireless networks, some people forget that those networks often rely on wireline infrastructure to reach the rest of the world, Smith said. Carriers trying to restore landline service need more cooperation from government, he said. For example, in the aftermath of Katrina, tanker trucks carrying fuel for BellSouth generators were commandeered to fuel helicopters instead, he said.

Smith appeared with top technology executives from the three other major regional carriers on the first day of Telecom '05, the U.S. Telecom Association trade show in Las Vegas. Along with talk of next-generation infrastructure, they discussed lessons learned from hurricanes Katrina and Rita even as Wilma ravaged southern Florida on Monday.

The backup for a switch -- or any other piece of infrastructure -- should be at least 200 hundred miles (322 kilometers) away, not a few blocks down the street or in the next county, Smith said. And critical equipment should be on the upper floors of buildings, a policy that BellSouth had started to implement before Katrina, though it hadn't yet moved the batteries for all its switches.

Along with power, switching centers need to have a supply of fresh water for cooling, added Chris Rice, executive vice president, network planning and integration, and CTO at SBC Communications Inc. SBC, in San Antonio, Texas, serves coastal areas in Texas that were hit by Rita.

Both agreed that VOIP (voice over Internet Protocol) is not a panacea for crisis communication, though it does allow people to take their phones with them when they evacuate and plug in elsewhere. VOIP uses IP networks, such as the Internet, which are designed to automatically route around failures.

"There was a lot of talk after Hurricane Katrina around VOIP being the answer. Well, you know, the last time I checked, the elements that support VOIP still require power and they don't work well underwater," BellSouth's Smith said.

The executives were cautiously optimistic about IMS (IP multimedia subsystem), an emerging technology framework for delivering services over a variety of networks. Complexity and the need for more standards definition are problems, they said.

"We think it's a great vehicle to get us to where we want to be," said Mark Wegleitner, senior vice president of technology and CTO at Verizon Communications Inc. However, because IMS was originally developed for 3G (third-generation) mobile networks, Wegleitner said additional standards development by the Internet Engineering Task Force and other bodies is needed to make it work in the wired world.

SBC, which last week announced it would work with Lucent Technologies Inc. to deploy an IMS by late next year, expects it to begin as a platform for consumer VOIP and gradually evolve into handling other services, Rice said. BellSouth hasn't announced a decision on IMS but has pretty much made its choice, Smith said. IMS will bring together wired and wireless, voice, data and entertainment services, he said -- after further standards development.

"I don't want anyone to think it's done and all you have to do is buy one and plug it in," Smith said.

The executives voiced interest in WiMax, the emerging high-speed wireless technology, though they cautioned that radio spectrum is a problem. The first certified WiMax products, expected by the end of this year, support only frequencies around 3.5GHz, which are available to service providers in Europe, but not in the U.S. The use of different frequencies could impinge on economies of scale, as well as on roaming.

"We're starting to see the whole quad-band phone issue all over again," Smith said.

All four vendors also are moving forward on video services, with Verizon already offering a commercial service in Keller, Texas.

With cable operators already offering competing voice and data services, there's no way around investing in video, said Balan Nair, CTO of Qwest Communications International Inc., the nation's fourth-largest regional carrier.

"If you want to be in the consumer business, you have to be in the video business," Nair said. High-speed networks cost money that the carriers' old business model won't generate. "You can't keep operating a plant on a single revenue stream," he said.

Telecom '05 continues through Thursday.

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