published Saturday, May 7th, 2011

Telecom blackout in sights of crews

Power is now back on in nearly all Chattanooga-area homes and businesses, but cable TV, Internet and telephone services are still spotty.

EPB has made clear that the first priority is getting the power back — to get the lights to flick on and electric hot water heaters and refrigerators working again.

As the power comes back on, customers are discovering that they have also been cut off from Internet or TV service.

With the power recovery winding down, the push to restore communications is just getting under way.

Ringgold Telephone Co.

Phillip Foster, vice president of service design for Ringgold Telephone Co., said the company is wrapping up operations in the city hardest-hit by tornados in the Chattanooga area, but it will take days more to restore communications to the areas that the storms devastated completely.

“It’s hard to communicate with these people who don’t have anything left,” he said. “We’ve been going door to door in most of these communities.”

The business district near the interstate, downtown Ringgold and Cherokee Valley Road will take longer, at least until the end of the week, he said.

As businesses rebuild from the rubble, the phone company is working to ensure they have a line to the outside world.

“It just kind of surprised me that some of these businesses that were completely leveled are popping back up,” he said. “They’re pulling a trailer up and they’re going for it.”

The company has spent about $300,000 hanging new copper and fiber wire, a tab that could grow to $500,000 by the time repairs are finished, Foster said.

“That’s not a huge dollar amount, but it’s very big for us,” he said.

The company is also making an effort to replace broken copper wires with new fiber cable wherever possible to improve the system.

“We want to get ’em up as fast as we can, but we still want to be a little bit strategic about it,” he said.

Comcast

Operators such as Comcast, which rely at times on EPB’s utility poles to support its cables, have had to wait their turn until the utility is done with the poles, Comcast spokeswoman Laurie Shipley said Friday.

“Comcast techs are allowed into an area after the power company has reconnected all downed electric lines and cleared it,” she said.

The company has not been able to determine how many customers lost cable service, nor how long it will take to restore it. This is because customers don’t know for sure whether their cable connection has been severed until they can get power to their TV.

With the amount of destruction across the Southeast, the cable operator has not been able to call in additional technicians, instead working the ones already here in 16-hour shifts, Shipley said.

But the damage to Comcast’s system may not warrant bringing in additional crews if past experience is any guide, she said.

“It’s been our experience that once commercial power is restored, 85 percent of our customers will have their cable service restored immediately,” Shipley said.

EPB

EPB anticipates it will have most of its fiber customers hooked back up, including those in the direct tornado path, by Wednesday.

Customers who have been without fiber service for more than 24 hours will receive a credit on their bill, though EPB’s bill payment system has been down since at least Wednesday as the company sorted out storm-related problems.

On Friday afternoon, the utility’s website displayed an error message and directed customers to call EPB’s phone hot line.

EPB again widened its overall damage estimate, raising the estimated total number of broken utility poles to 608, and reporting 379 damaged transformers so far.

In a typical year, the utility replaces a total of roughly 200 poles.

AT&T

Cathy Lewandowski, AT&T manager for Tennessee and Kentucky, said about 2,000 land-line customers in Chattanooga have been without service since the storm, but that number has fluctuated as power was slowly restored.

“We have sent more than 200 technicians from the southwest to the southeast, and they’re working in Alabama, Kentucky and Tennessee,” Lewandowski said.

AT&T activated its $600 million network disaster recovery program that includes mobile infrastructure such as support trailers and response teams, she said.

But until the company hears from each customer, there’s no way to know when repairs in the region will be complete.

“AT&T is making steady progress in restoring service to AT&T land-line telephones and will continue these efforts for as long as is needed,” Lewandowski said.

about Ellis Smith...

Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...

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