Disaster Planning

The unfortunate series of events in the Gulf region this year showed us just how vulnerable our communications systems are. Water and wind can remove an infrastructure that provides network interconnections and electrical energy, leaving human beings with the most elementary means of communication. This column looks at some ways to counter natural destruction with technology resources. Let’s begin with prevention. Just a couple of months ago, on a tour of the Bright House Brandon, Fla., headend, Gene White pointed out to me how the building has been protected to withstand over 100 mph winds. As he escorted me into a small lobby that is reminiscent of an airlock, Gene told me that the contractor had asked him as the roof over the lobby was being poured what wind force he wanted to be able to tolerate so he could adjust the thickness accordingly. "The theory," said Gene, "is that if the roof of the lobby can’t blow out, the wind won’t force the inner door open, and the rest of the building will remain intact." Of course, that only preserves the building from wind—water is another story. Old school solutions As we’ve seen, a flood can take out not only electrical power, but also entire structures and their contents. In such a case, there has to be a method of rapidly replacing the entire infrastructure and the lines that connect it to the rest of the world. In the old days, AT&T offered two solutions for telephone central office disasters. One was to modify priorities on the manufacturing schedules of its wholly owned Western Electric to divert a telecommunications switch in progress to the affected city and mobilize the national installation force to bring personnel to the site. This works well when one entity owns and operates all the major metropolitan telecommunications systems and the manufacturing process that supports them. For better or worse, that’s no longer the case. The second solution was far more flexible, did not place as much disruption on the supply chain, and is usable even with today’s technology. Its original AT&T version was a mini-central office on wheels—in those days, a small, modular switch, which was built in a trailer. The trailer contained not only the switch, but also the necessary power systems and the distributing frame interface to subscriber lines. All that was required was to copy subscriber records into the administrative part of the switch, drive the trailer to the site of the destroyed central office and swing the subscriber lines onto the new switch. In the old Bell System, even the subscriber records could be preconfigured because AT&T maintained central office records. Today, the Internet and Internet Protocol (IP) technology theoretically make disaster recovery easier. Call management servers (CMSs), applications servers, and gateways can be, and are, distributed geographically. The destruction of a headend or hub does not mean automatic removal of the communications infrastructure. In fact, later in this column, we’ll touch on how hosted private branch exchange (PBX) services can keep a business running in a virtual location, even when the real location is totally wiped out. Trailer revived However (and it’s a big however), access to the infrastructure in a disaster is still a problem. That’s what killed even cellular service in Louisiana, when towers and mobile switching centers were destroyed. This is where the old trailer idea begins to make sense again. I’d like to say that we have an example of cable technology coming to the rescue with a trailer equipped with routers, cable modem termination systems (CMTSs), and a modular hybrid fiber/coax (HFC) network interconnect, but for now, I can’t. But I can point to cable people putting together a mobile communications solution using satellite technology. Matt Schaeffer, son of former Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers Board member Bob Schaeffer, and Bob himself were part of a project sponsored by Wisconsin radio station KFIZ AM, K107.1FM and others in the Fond du Lac area. The concept was to drive an RV equipped with satellite receivers and voice over IP (VoIP) technology to Louisiana to offer donated supplies and free communications access to anyone who came to where it was parked. Self-aligning satellite dishes were part of the project. In addition to the satellite and IP hardware, the trailer had a fold-out table for phones. Bob provided some equipment and technical assistance needed to configure the trailer, and his son was part of the team that drove with the trailer to be on-site support staff. I don’t know if the Web site will remain until this column appears in print, but if it is, you can read Matt’s moving details of the project and its results at www.ksat.org. It would be a tremendous gesture if cable could team up with its networks to create contingency services like this in every metropolitan area. I bounced this idea off Richard Pfister, SCTE senior member and corporate engineering director at Cablevision, and he said all major networks have mobile satellite vans that could be converted to this type of service. The challenge is that one of the highest use periods for these vans is the very time they would be needed most. Virtual solutions If it’s not possible to mobilize a real communications center, there are virtual solutions that can provide some continuity while things are being returned to normal. I spoke with Harprit Singh, the founder and president of Intellicomm, about his company’s hosted PBX offering. He explained that this type of service is an excellent solution for businesses in the event of a disaster that destroys the lines to a key location of the business. "A hosted PBX service can be set up as a contingency plan, and when a disaster makes communications with the normal business location impossible, all calls can be forwarded to the hosted service," he said. Intellicomm provides several plans where the hosted PBX provides the full features of the normal PBX, including attendant and voice or fax messaging. "With the Intellicomm service," continued Singh, "it is even possible to reroute calls to individual employees via a Web interface to cell phones or other locations away from the disaster, where people are available to continue business activity." Individuals, as well as businesses, can set up virtual communications solutions. These solutions are relatively simple. Several stories have emerged of individuals communicating via low bandwidth text messaging when regular cellular service was unavailable. A geographically diverse voice mail system can also be a way for people outside the disaster area to communicate with affected people, by leaving messages for later retrieval. It might even be a good idea to consider subscribing to more than one VoIP phone service, using a carrier class service hard wired to an embedded multimedia terminal adapter (EMTA) for normal operations, but shifting to a second tier, broadband-based service that can be accessed and used from any location with Internet access. The point The point of this column is that there are many technical ways to provide communications continuity even when usual means are no longer available. It would be a feather in cable’s cap if our industry could formally support some of them and promote their availability through marketing and public relations programs. Justin Junkus is president of KnowledgeLink and telephony editor for Communications Technology. Reach him at jjunkus@knowledgelinkinc.com.

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