News

Cable Left In the Dark By Gustav

9/05/2008 8:00 PM Eastern

As telecommunications firms begin cleaning up after Hurricane Gustav, one key part of their recovery remained elusive: power.

Companies serving the states hardest hit — Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi and Texas — said they were still in assessment mode late last week. But communications outfits are not the top of the pecking order when it comes to recovery — that place goes to the local power company.

Until those utilities can make their plant safe and restore electricity to homes, cable and telephone companies are on their own to provide generators and stage repair crews to await their access.

Cox Communications, hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, said its fiber-optic plant “looked good” in the wake of Gustav. Learning from the previous killer storm, Cox stockpiled supplies and moved manpower a safe distance from the projected landfall. Damage assessment began on Sept. 3, when a 100-member team moved back into the damage zone.

Spokesman David Grabert related that only a few strands of fiber had to be replaced, including one that needed a new pole, according to the company’s initial assessment.

The company was awaiting restoration by Entergy, the New Orleans power supplier, which at midweek had 13 of 14 transmission lines out of commission. That company projected at press time that power would not be fully restored until this past Saturday.

In other markets, Cox identified 81 construction jobs in Lafayette, La.; and in Baton Rouge, damage-assessment efforts were complicated by downed trees.

Suddenlink Communications serves some of the hardest-hit communities. The company reported it was on generator power in towns such as Jonesboro, La., where the local power company estimated it would not be able to restore power to the headend for at least two weeks. The system is on generator power and the company received a bigger unit from Conroy, Ark., which was online Friday.

Alexandria, La., was in the worst shape, as three-fourths of the customers were without power immediately after the storm. Suddenlink crews were making progress Friday, closely following utility crews as they restored power. Recovery was hindered by floodwater, which began to recede Sept. 4.

Repairs there were being made, however, despite the flooding and the difficulty of obtaining gasoline, said the St. Louis-based cable operator, which also wired the Red Cross shelter at the Red River Coliseum for cable services.

In Bastrop, La., cable lines were on the ground, and two more broken strands were found on Friday. In Arkansas, there were 70,000 power outages, 40% of which were in Hot Springs, a market served by Suddenlink. Still, the operator was able to restore services to 65% of the market by Friday.

The personal impact was closest to home in Greenville, Miss., where two employees lost their houses to flooding and the city was still under four feet of water late last week. That system was also almost fully operational by Friday.

AT&T sent 2,500 technicians into the four states, setting up back-up power and restoring services. As of Friday, 96% of its remote terminals, which provide broadband service, were back online and 1,000 portable generators had been deployed. The company said it was consuming 85,000 gallons of diesel fuel a day to power its cell sites in the affected region.

Charter officials said that in its Louisiana service area, repair has already begun with significant service restoration expected this week. For now, most of the work is damage assessment with technicians “driving the plant” to determine what’s needed to make repairs.

Aimee Pfannenstiel, vice president and general manager of Charter’s operations in Louisiana, said that all employees are safe. The vast majority evacuated but have since returned to make necessary repairs.

“In some of our communities, like Bourg, Lafourche and Thibodaux, our people are working in tough conditions, no power, no air [conditioning] and our hats are off to them,” said Pfannenstiel.

Both AT&T and Verizon Communications said Friday they were preparing for Hanna, categorized as a tropical storm as of press time, to hit the East Coast. Verizon said it is reminding FiOS Internet and video customers that their fiber-optic connections include a backup power source at their houses, but advised that additional batteries could be purchased at local electronics retailers.

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