Have Webcast, Will Travel--Virtually, of Course
A virtual tour allowed Regional Editor Holly Edgell to visit the hub of all things AT&T and get an understanding on how AT&T gets people reconnected when disaster strikes.
AT&T really knows how to butter me up. How could I resist this?
"You are one of only two invitations that we’re extending in St. Louis for this interactive webcast. It’s the first time that AT&T has used this live format to update reporters, and I thought you would you would be especially interested in the opportunity."
A select few journalists around the country would get to hear from Bill Smith, president of AT&T Network Operations, ask him questions, and get a tour of the AT&T command center in New Jersey. I was hooked.
Accordingly, I settled in front of my laptop at the appointed hour. There was Smith himself, seated like a reluctant news anchor on a fairly bare bones set. He was dressed casually, as befits a Friday afternoon meeting with a bunch of journalists. (I, too, was dressed casually--in Bermuda shorts and a T-shirt).
Smith talked a bit about the wired world in general, discussing the explosion in mobile data--8,000 percent growth at AT&T alone since 2007. He said AT&T would be investing $75 billion in expanding its networks. That is good news for states like Missouri, where broadband is still out of reach for many citizens.
The AT&T boss also discussed plans for LTE or long term evolution. The AT&T website describes LTE as "a wireless broadband technology designed to support mobile Internet access via cell phones and handheld devices. LTE is sometimes called 4G, or fourth generation, technology."
All pretty cool, right? I was even able to weigh in with a question for Stephenson, and he answered! (More on that later). But, what I was really interested in was closer to home: Just how does a major telecommunications player get communities hit by disasters up and running?
GNOC (not to mention a COW and a COLT)
The tour began. It was actually a video that showed off AT&T's Global Network Operations Center (GNOC), located in New Jersey. Picture NASA's Mission Control in Houston, with hundreds of tech types monitoring data usage, traffic patterns, weather, news and anything that might affect the way we humans use AT&T.
The folks at GNOC also monitor disasters, such as the May tornado that struck Joplin. I asked Smith just how AT&T responded.
"We always monitor what’s going on," he said. "A big part of what we do is before the event."
Smith explained that GNOC workers and are ready to deploy resources to the field as soon as possible, even moving mobile resources and field crews around a region until they know exactly where to set up.
Meet Chuck (and learn about POTS)
Chuck Kerschner, director of AT&T Network Operations Centers, appeared in the tour and later answered more questions from me via an e-interview.
As consumers, we rely on technology and infrastructure that we--for the most part--only think about when we notice a break in service. In layman's terms, can you list and provide a brief description of the main networks that keep us connected to landline phones, cellular phone networks, cable, and the Internet? How are they interconnected?
The main "network" that keeps us all interconnected is the physical wiring that connects to our houses and businesses. The copper wiring (think POTS–Plain Old Telephone Service) and fiber optics (think UVerse) that come out of homes and businesses is that first step in communicating with the rest of the world. Those connections travel on telephone poles and through underground duct work. Even cell towers are physically connected back to the network through those same fiber optic connections.
Which of these systems is most vulnerable in times of severe weather, for example, the recent tornado activity that struck Joplin?
Each type of weather event brings its own challenges. Tornadoes bring high winds that can immediately affect the telephone poles carrying our fiber optic or copper wiring. Those same winds can also affect the cell towers that can reach many feet into the air. Other weather events, such as hurricanes or flooding bring more challenges in addition to high winds. High water and excessive rain can flood buildings and equipment locations.
However, a great deal of the AT&T infrastructure is underground or in hardened facilities and can survive most large weather events unscathed.
How many people are involved in restoring service when there's a disaster of the magnitude that Joplin has seen? Is the work done remotely (for example from the GNOC facility in New Jersey) or with technicians on the ground?
Hundreds of AT&T employees across multiple AT&T locations are involved in any disaster recovery effort. Of course, we have local and regional technicians and managers on site performing all manners of recovery activities. We also have close to 100 employees from all over the country that can deploy NDR assets to any affected area, usually within 24 hours. In addition to all the employees that assist on site, there are many remote employees performing critical functions. Engineers perform traffic studies and design new facilities. Warehouse employees are packaging and shipping replacement equipment. Provisioning centers are setting up new connections across the network. Many teams across AT&T are doing things behind the scenes to get customer service restored as fast as possible.
What kinds of tasks, jobs, and projects are your technicians engaged in as part of the effort to get Joplin residents back "on the grid," so to speak?
Many technicians are driving out to affected neighborhoods and areas to assess damage levels and determine what immediate steps need to be taken to restore service quickly.
Local and regional technicians are installing new telephone poles and hanging new cable.
Those same technicians are splicing that cable into existing cable and making sure the connections are restored. They are deploying temporary cell towers while other technicians are deploying portable generators where commercial power was lost and making sure that all generators have enough fuel and are operating properly.
To what degree does AT&T rely on "old-school" technology to deliver service in Missouri? For example, there are areas of the state where broadband availability is limited. Does this help or hinder broader efforts to restore service in times of disaster?
The majority of so called “old school” technology is used for POTS (plain old telephone service), and that is positive for us during restoration. That technology is very mature and robust and has a low rate of failure. Technology experts are numerous and have a great deal of experience in quickly restoring those failures.
Who else is out there?
Of course, other telecommunications companies have their own command centers and disaster response plans. Here are a few links: