Telecoms toil to restore signal after massive Chattanooga storms

Telecoms toil to restore signal after massive Chattanooga storms

May 3rd, 2011 by Ellis Smith in Business Around the Region

EPB operator O'Fair Brooks, left, and EPB lineman Charles Sales replace a utility pole near the intersection of Mountain View Avenue, and Crest Drive after a severe storm uprooted trees and damaged area homes. Staff Photo by Dan Henry/Chattanooga Times Free Press

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Storms that battered Chattanooga's wired and wireless infrastructure on Wednesday did more than knock out power.

Telecom and cellular providers scrambled to restore communications after more than half of EPB's wired customers lost their connection to the outside world.

AT&T, Comcast and EPB provide phone and Internet service, and all had service go down, representatives said.

Stacey Harth, a spokeswoman for AT&T, said Monday about 1,000 landline customers were without service.

"To assist in this restoration, 80 technicians from AT&T operations in the Southwest are in the market to augment our current technician force," Harth said.

Comcast was unable to report on the number of customers without phone or cable TV because of the power outage, said spokeswoman Laurie Shipley.

Restoration efforts were complicated by rules that prevent non-electrical contractors from even touching a pole until it is certified safe by EPB, Shipley said, adding that up to 85 percent of Comcast outages could be power related.

However, all companies reported that their employees were working around the clock to restore service.

EPB even offered a bill credit to anyone with a service interruption of longer than 24 hours.

wireless spires hit

In Apison, Chattanooga-based Tower Services parked a mobile cell tower called a Colt - cell tower on light truck - at the elementary school to help with recovery efforts, said Johanna Hartley, project manager.

"Our guy was on the tower down in Ringgold, trying to get things set up and looking down on this, and he said, 'It's just like a big bowl and everything's gone,'" Hartley said. "They're big burly guys, they don't usually talk like that."

Verizon and AT&T together have lost some function at about 50 cell sites in the area, Hartley said.

Although work orders were just coming in, the two wireless giants had storm damage at about 25 towers each, she estimated.

"They're still assessing a lot of the damage," Hartley said.

AT&T confirmed that it still has a cell tower in Ooltewah and another in Trenton that are not in service, but Harth said the rest are "functioning properly."

While most towers remain standing, the initial damage came from some of the attached wireless equipment which may have been blown awry or away, officials said.

Josh Ligon, project manager for Chattanooga-based Wireless Properties, said each of the 20 cell sites he leases out to wireless customers is still standing.

"We got away clean," he said.

When the company builds the cell towers, each one is designed with wind resistance built in, depending upon the area, Ligon said.

"Those engineering standards have held up the way they're supposed to," he said. "It's the little things that are bolted on that can blow around just like the shingles on your roof."

Some sites still went off-line when power lines went down because they had no backup generators, which Ligon said is a lesson learned.

"The mobile network stood up rather well, as long as it was not in the direct line of the tornado," he said.

Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at esmith@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6315.