Staying connected when the world falls apart: How carriers keep networks going

To Mike Muniz, an space supervisor for AT&T’s community catastrophe restoration crew, witnessing the aftermath of Hurricane Michael was like coming into a conflict zone.

On Oct. 10, 2018, two days after forming over the Caribbean Sea, Hurricane Michael made landfall within the Florida Panhandle. Essentially the most powerful hurricane to hit the US since Andrew in 1992, the Class 5 Michael killed 45 people, left 700,000 residents throughout Florida, Georgia and Alabama with out energy and caused $25 billion in injury.

Muniz arrived in Mexico Seashore, Florida, a few days later to assist restore the world’s cell service, which the storm had worn out.

“I look again, I believe it was worse than Puerto Rico [after Hurricane Maria in 2017],” Muniz says. “I bear in mind seeing folks simply wandering round.”

Following disasters that topple cellular phone towers or knock whole networks offline, wi-fi suppliers have to be on high of their recreation when repairing them, particularly as more Americans ditch landlines completely for his or her smartphones. Past offering an important manner for survivors to remain linked to family members and speak to 911, dependable networks are additionally crucial for receiving emergency alerts and staying knowledgeable of native situations and restoration efforts. Likewise, emergency personnel have to plan and coordinate efforts to save lots of lives and rescue folks in peril.

AT&T groups work to revive service after Hurricane Michael. 


Whereas actual occasions will differ based mostly on every scenario, the corporate plans to have companies restored inside hours of being mobilized.

Both manner, Muniz and his colleagues face exhausting work when managing catastrophe restoration, they usually’re more likely to be busy within the weeks forward. The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season, which has broken records with 25 named storms as of early October, will not formally shut till Nov. 30. Hurricane Delta, at present within the Gulf of Mexico, is the newest storm of the season and could make landfall in the US on Friday. Throw within the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the deadly wildfires in California and it makes for a scary combine.

Throughout his days in Mexico Seashore, Muniz remembers how residents had been in a position to telephone family members to allow them to know they had been alive as soon as AT&T’s crew had restored service utilizing a conveyable Satellite tv for pc Cell on Gentle Truck (or SAT COLT, because it’s recognized). One particular person was in a position to speak to a member of the family after not being in contact for 3 days.

“They had been very, very grateful,” he says.

The SAT COLT is only one instance of the emergency tools that the nation’s third-largest provider retains in its 4 catastrophe response facilities throughout the nation. (It has a further facility within the UK to assist its international operations.) Earlier this summer season, I visited one in all AT&T’s services positioned a couple of hours exterior New York Metropolis to see what was inside. 

An ever-evolving toolkit

AT&T has drones, what it calls Flying COWs (for “cell on wings”) that may hover within the air and supply cellular phone service. 

Eli Blumenthal/PJDM

Hurricanes and wildfires are essentially the most excessive profile disasters wi-fi carriers have to handle, however lacking individuals, terrorist assaults and, sure, pandemics are additionally on the checklist. No matter hits, they’ve a fleet of instruments and autos at their disposal, prepared to reply.

“We’re the final line of protection for AT&T,” Muniz says. “We will not have property that exit into the sector and do not work.”

The third-largest wi-fi provider within the nation with over 92 million customers (as of its second-quarter earnings), AT&T additionally operates a broadband community that provides house web entry to just about 14 million customers. 

Its core options are the COLTs, SAT COLTs and Cell on Wheels, or COWs. All three can shortly be pushed into areas to spice up service within the place of cell towers that may be destroyed, or whereas engineers restore them. AT&T would not break down the price of the person instruments, however the firm says it has spent over $650 million on its NDR assets over the previous three a long time.

The COLTs are outfitted with cellular phone transmitters that connect with a fiber line or current wi-fi service, whereas SAT COLTs connect with AT&T’s community by means of satellites. Each seem like huge semi-trucks, have their very own turbines on board for energy and have retractable masts that may prolong as much as 60 toes within the air to broadcast the wi-fi indicators. As soon as deployed to a location, Muniz says it takes roughly an hour to get its newest SAT COLTs operational within the area and start offering service from the truck.

The COWs are smaller, trailer-sized models that may be connected and towed by a automotive or pickup truck. They do not present the identical broadcasting vary as a COLT (the precise vary of all tools varies based mostly on terrain) however are simpler to move. All three may be configured to make use of AT&T’s FirstNet, which makes use of a particular band of the provider’s 4G LTE community to prioritize first responder communication.

Blimps, drones, boats and extra

AT&T’s blimp, which it calls FirstNet One, can hover within the air for 2 weeks and supply emergency cell protection. 


For areas {that a} truck cannot attain, AT&T added new instruments corresponding to a blimp known as Aerostat, or “FirstNet One,” and drones known as Flying COWs (for “cell on wings”). When deployed — it will possibly climb to 1,000 toes off the bottom — the Aerostat blimp can cowl 100 sq. miles, or about the identical space as three SAT COLTs, and may keep aloft for 2 weeks. Utilizing it frees up the vans to go someplace else.

Not like leisure drones that may fly freely, the Flying COW and Aerostat are tethered to the bottom by fiber and energy wires. The drones hover no increased than 400 toes within the air and may present protection for 3 to 5 miles, relying on the terrain. Not like the blimp, the Flying COWs have to land recurrently for upkeep.

Previous experiences with floods, which the corporate significantly skilled when Hurricane Harvey hit Texas in 2017, have additionally influenced AT&T’s toolkit. “One of many enhancements that got here out of Harvey was we bumped into issue getting by means of flooded areas,” says Muniz. 

An answer was to buy dual-purpose amphibious autos that may drive on land or function as boats on water. Trying like mini-Jeeps or greater ATVs, these autos haven’t got cell radios however are used to move folks or tools, such because the Flying COWs, by means of completely different terrain. Throughout its response to Hurricane Laura, the provider used a few of its amphibious autos to maneuver engineers round so they might restore a fiber connection.

It additionally deployed SAT COLTs for each FirstNet in addition to common prospects, says Kevan Parker, an incident commander on the NDR crew who went from Atlanta to Louisiana to assist coordinate the provider’s response. On Sept. 4, AT&T additionally launched the blimp over Cameron Parish, Louisiana the place Laura made landfall.

Hurricanes, tornadoes, COVID and extra

A cellular phone tower downed by the tornadoes that hit Georgia and Alabama in 2019. 


Whereas hurricanes can present a number of days’ discover earlier than they make landfall — Parker and his crew started prepping for Laura 5 days earlier than it hit — different disasters, corresponding to earthquakes, come with out warning. The character of their jobs requires the response groups to be ready at a second’s discover to enter the sector, with 2020 proving the adage of anticipating the sudden.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the New York space arduous earlier this 12 months, Muniz and his crew introduced COLTs to Jones Seashore on Lengthy Island to assist increase protection at a COVID testing middle. Comparable vans had been deployed to testing facilities in Newark and Bergen County, New Jersey, in order that officers might shortly share check outcomes and element issues.

Restoring communications can also be key for first responders trying to navigate new cities and cities which can be thrust right into a disaster, significantly in rural areas. Jim Milsap, a technical division chief in Fulton County, Georgia, was a part of the crew responding to tornadoes in Alabama and Georgia last year. He mentioned telephones and cell protection are very important for utilizing maps and GPS.

“These folks which can be coming in from out of city and out of the county, abruptly they present up they usually want that cellular phone protection simply as a lot as anyone else,” he says. “If you do not have protection, you may’t even discover the city.”

A Verizon engineer establishing a cell cell website after Hurricane Sally. 


AT&T is not alone in these efforts. Every of the three main US carriers has its personal instruments and groups, with Verizon and T-Mobile additionally working fleets of COLTs and COWs, cell command facilities and aid trailers alongside different instruments which can be able to be deployed in case of emergencies. Verizon even experimented with drones that connect to its cell network again in 2016.

Though every supplier’s instruments are designed for their very own networks, they will work collectively. The Nationwide Coordinating Heart for Communications, part of the Division of Homeland Safety’s Communications Data Sharing and Evaluation (CISA) division based mostly in Washington, DC, helps coordinate efforts between authorities businesses and wi-fi carriers earlier than and through disasters. The person carriers, regardless of being rival networks, may enable prospects on different networks to reap the benefits of no matter protection is offered within the space.

Billy Bob Brown, Jr., CISA’s affiliate director of precedence telecom companies sub-division, says that the group has common coordination conferences with its companions within the authorities and the personal sector, however can meet each day upfront of a giant storm and even twice a day for extra extreme occasions. All three main wi-fi carriers are listed as trade representatives on CISA’s website for the NCC as are federal businesses. together with the Division of Justice, Federal Emergency Administration Company (FEMA) and the Federal Communications Fee (FCC). 

“One of the best time to commerce enterprise playing cards is just not in the course of the center of the hurricane,” says Brown Jr., noting a saying. “You commerce enterprise playing cards throughout a blue sky day when you can begin speaking about, you recognize, good, coordinated planning collectively.” 

“So day-to-day coordination, that is the place it is actually crucial to develop good relationships.”

A T-Cellular COW after Hurricane Michael on Mexico Seashore. 


A volunteer workforce monitoring the entire manner

Though AT&T has a crew centered on sustaining its emergency tools, the group that really goes into the sector additionally consists of educated volunteers from AT&T’s different divisions, together with its retail shops.

Patty Daughtery works on the incident command crew, which arranges the crews, tools and different logistics required to reply to a disaster. She says lots of of workers have signed as much as be volunteers and are paid their common salaries when deployed.

As soon as a crew is within the area, Daughtery’s crew remotely screens them with GPS whereas overseeing the restoration course of from starting to finish. Whereas Parker was on the bottom in Louisiana following Laura, he had assist from groups in Austin, Atlanta, Cleveland and Bedminster, New Jersey.

For journeys which will require days or perhaps weeks of assist, the corporate rolls in trailers to make use of as a cell command middle for coordinating with public officers, in addition to their very own groups within the area. Cellular bunks with DirecTV connections, bogs and showers are additionally introduced in to deal with AT&T staffers so the provider would not want to search out housing in an space the place newly homeless residents are already crowding accommodations and evacuation facilities.

AT&T’s housing trailers function bunk beds with particular person televisions outfitted with DirecTV.

Eli Blumenthal/PJDM

With the significance of social distancing within the age of the coronavirus, the corporate is restructuring the way it handles assist for its employees within the area. One answer AT&T is contemplating, Daughtery says, is placing folks into “pods,” or teams, to restrict their publicity to others. Teams of 4 to 6 folks will head down and deploy tools collectively, eat collectively and work and sleep in the identical areas.

How 5G and LEOs could make a distinction

As 5G and different wi-fi applied sciences evolve, the emergency tools that helps the brand new networks want to vary as properly. AT&T’s 5G rollouts are nonetheless ongoing — the provider at present has a low-band 5G community that covers over 205 million folks — but it surely’s evaluating the way it will add the brand new sooner wi-fi know-how to its fleet of response autos.

Past the Aerostat blimp, Steve Poupos, AT&T’s director of superior know-how assist and the one who oversees AT&T’s NDR program, says the corporate might go even increased with low Earth orbit satellites, or LEOs, to spice up protection, significantly in rural areas.

A stack of SpaceX Starlink satellites being deployed in orbit. The satellites, referred to as LEOs, can beam the web to Earth from house. 


Quite a few firms have been experimenting with utilizing LEOs to ship web service from orbit, together with SpaceX for its Starlink program and Amazon with its Undertaking Kuiper providing. SpaceX is expected to offer Starlink to consumers later this year, whereas Amazon lately received approval from the Federal Communications Commission to deploy 3,200 satellites.

“We’re firms like Amazon and the entire firms that need to the LEO race if you’ll, to who’s going to be the primary,” Poupos says. “We’re conserving shut tabs on that.”

Since they beam the web down from house, partnering with an organization that operates an LEO community would enable the NDR crew to assist set up cell protection significantly in distant or rural areas that do not have robust fiber web already operating on the bottom. Poupos believes the know-how might be significantly helpful for search and rescue missions.

Including 5G to its instruments is equally on Poupos’ radar, although AT&T continues to be evaluating which flavors of the know-how would work finest for its wants. The provider’s low-band 5G community would not convey a major velocity increase in comparison with an excellent 4G LTE connection. It additionally has a a lot sooner millimeter-wave connection in elements of 35 cities, however the vary on that sign is commonly restricted to only sections of some metropolis blocks.

At a medical triage station, for instance, a millimeter-wave connection on a SAT COLT might enable for shortly sending giant picture information to medical doctors positioned remotely to view in real-time.

“We’re attempting to ascertain which would be the best know-how going ahead,” says Poupos. “To have the pliability and the velocity of 5G goes to be actually, actually essential. In order that’s why we have to hold leading edge and we have to proceed to enhance this system.”

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Eli Blumenthal