One year on, Hurricane Sandy's legacy resonates with telcos, wireline service providers

Samantha Bookman, FierceTelecomA year ago, Hurricane Sandy made landfall just south of New York City. The destructive impact of this superstorm affected wireline networks across the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states, and changed the way communications service providers (CSPs) prepare for and deal with disasters and other potential causes of large-scale outages. But have providers like Verizon (NYSE: VZ), tw telecom (Nasdaq: TWTC) and others done enough to keep customers connected?

Verizon's post-storm repairs and strategies have been the most visible, and arguably the most controversial, of CSPs affected by or involved in the East Coast's recovery. With its copper network practically wiped out in Manhattan due to the storm surge, the carrier decided to leap ahead with its TDM migration plans and replace its legacy network in the city with an all-fiber network. It was good news for Verizon's business customers in particular, though some community advocates complained that replacing copper-based voice lines would negatively impact elderly consumers.

By December 2012, Verizon had installed roughly 5,000 miles of fiber strands in its NYC network.

But the carrier's moves outside the city were not so generous. Earlier this year Verizon was dinged by New York's attorney general when it got clearance from the state Public Service Commission to install wireless Voice Link units in homes on the western half of Fire Island, a barrier island just off Long Island, rather than repair the copper lines destroyed in the storm. The move alone didn't spur the AG's office into action--rather, it was a report from a CWA (Communications Workers of America) member that the carrier was stockpiling Voice Link units in the Catskills area, far from Fire Island, and offering the service to vacation home owners as an alternative to traditional voice service. Under fire from the AG and from consumer groups in both New York and neighboring New Jersey coastal communities, Verizon backed away from the Voice Link plan and agreed to extend fiber to the island instead.

One clear takeaway from the disaster was that fiber networks were among the most resilient components. Providers that specialize in serving business and other carriers had some of the most extensive fiber networks and therefore the most flexible--Zayo Group, for example, which offers FTTT (fiber to the tower) services throughout the Northeast, was able to route traffic around damaged areas and downed cell sites.

tw telecom last week released a statement touting its Business Ethernet service's uptime during and after the storm.

"While every service provider was impacted, tw telecom customers were minimally affected as a result of preparation in advance of the storm; the resiliency of our all-fiber, business Ethernet network; and the collaboration of our local teams with building managers of properties where our fiber network connects to their buildings," said Robert Bianco, VP and GM of tw telecom Manhattan, in the release.

SCTE Dzuban disaster recovery

Left, SCTE's Mark Dzuban and Performance Petroleum owner John Mayer in front of a disaster recovery exhibit at the SCTE trade show (Photo by Steve Donohue) Click here to see the slideshow

What about future disasters? Providers and government agencies have been working to prepare for them, with Sandy as a new benchmark.

Last week, SCTE partnered with Alpha Technologies on an exhibit at the SCTE trade show that featured disaster recovery equipment and services offered by cable operators like Cox Communications and Time Warner Cable (NYSE: TWC). The exhibit's prominent position near the main entrance was a clear signal to operators that investing with an eye toward network resiliency is no longer optional, particularly as cablecos offer voice services as part of their triple-play service bundles, and as they increasingly compete with telcos in the business services segment.

For first responders, the communications situation is not as clear-cut as it should be. Communities up and down the East Coast dealt with wireline and wireless outages during and well after the storm--in some cases, more than six months. For some municipal governments, their public servants' land-based radio systems were the only lifeline available to reach the outside world.

In February, Long Beach, N.Y., officials told the FCC during a special hearing that, while their first responders' radio systems worked, phone carriers could not be contacted (sub. req.) after the storm because cell towers were down--either destroyed or out of backup power.

However, a clear regulatory path for ensuring telecommunications could be awhile in coming: The government's Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force only released the results of its study in August, and its conclusion was that the federal government needs to "develop a strategy to ensure that wireless phone and data networks and consumer communications devices can be maintained during super storms and other disasters," an InformationWeek article said.

The attention being paid to disaster communication is heartening at some levels. But there are still issues to be dealt with--most visibly, FirstNet (First Responders Network Authority), the controversy-plagued initiative to deploy a nationwide high-speed public safety network in the wake of 9/11. Currently mired in ethics investigations over its procurement process, the holdup in the rollout of the NTIA's ambitious idea is frustrating at best. Thinking about the possibility of a glitch-filled integration of responders' current mobile radio equipment into the LTE-based FirstNet, and the risks that might incur in the event that cell towers lose power, can set one's teeth on edge.

Again, it leads back to the resiliency of fiber networks. Cell towers are important for high-speed communications, but require backhaul via wireline networks to work most effectively. In a disaster, those wireline networks are even more critical.

Business services-focused providers like Cox, Comcast (Nasdaq: CMCSA) and tw telecom continue to improve their continuity of operations strategies as they build their network footprint, making sure their customers have high-speed connectivity regardless of the situation in a disaster-affected region. Government and consumer-focused providers need to pay attention to how those providers are accomplishing it.

"Even considering our network and team's resiliency, we can still take away lessons from Sandy, some of which include being aware of where our equipment is being placed in buildings, how best to bring fuel into the city in the case of a disaster, and ideas on even better preparing for the next time; getting to that next level," said Bianco. "Because, as much as we don't like to think about it, an event like this will happen again."

That's an attitude Tier 1 providers need to adopt as they plan their network buildout strategy.--Sam