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The Advantages of Collocation

We've included this little story about Cytel in order to beat the drum again about the importance of 4Ci (command, control, communications, computers, and intelligence) in any disaster. If you cannot communicate with your responders, you cannot recover. Moreover, nobody ever knows which communications media will survive after a given event. One sound bet, therefore, is to cozy up to a good, reputable collocation provider.

A collocation ("collo" for short), sometimes called a "carrier hotel," is exactly what the name implies. These facilities are generally well-hardened; almost without exception, they allow carriers to connect with one another under both day-to-day and emergency operations. In a disaster, a collo can be indispensable. A typical collocation can house connections to one or more of the following kinds of technologies:

  • Incumbent local exchange carriers (ILECs) such as AT&T or Verizon
  • Major long-distance companies
  • Competitive local exchange carriers (CLECs)
  • Metropolitan area networks (MANs)
  • Wireless providers
  • Wireless Internet service providers (WISPs)
  • Voice over IP (VoIP) carriers
  • Satellite communication providers

Because it's difficult to say in advance which of these technologies will survive a widespread disaster such as a hurricane, it's prudent to position your organization in advance to take advantage of any of these technologies, depending on the circumstances. If connections to the ILEC go down, for example, connections could be purveyed quickly from a facilities-based CLEC or MAN. If everything goes to a hot place in a hand basket (so to speak), satellite and VoIP still might survive. In fact, after major disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, or tsunamis, satellite communication is often the only link left to a 21st century communications infrastructure.

By the same token, the Internet protocol (IP) dates back to a time when U.S. war planners envisioned scenarios in which every AT&T primary central office would be in the upper atmosphere in case of a nuclear attack. IP was designed so that packets of information could bypass these lost hubs and get through on the facilities that survived in outlying areas. This technology is equally useful today when major communications hubs are affected by disasters or even terrorism. Even better, the technology allows voice to be carried (hence the term voice over IP). When you sum it all up, it's possible to maintain 4Ci on both a data and voice basis by cobbling together surviving transport communication facilities, and then employing IP. There's no better place to do this than in a collo. (This is precisely how the military planners of the past envisioned it, except now civilian organizations demand the same capabilities!)

In the spirit of service, here's a quick hurricane checklist of considerations for what to expect after a large disaster affects you. Pay particular attention to the services that can be accessed in a collocation:

  • Paging systems, including two-way paging, should work because they're satellite based. This includes BlackBerry systems. Use them, and refer to them in your plan.
  • Satellite communications shouldn't be affected. You should at least know where to connect to a satellite carrier (for example, in a collo) if you don't use this technology day to day. Of course, if satellite is your primary technology (for instance, if your organization is a TV network), you must plan for a backup in the event of a satellite outage.
  • Wireless Internet service providers should be back on the air relatively quickly. Because there's no licensing requirement and the equipment is inexpensive and portable, WISPs often beat the phone companies in establishing Internet connectivity to affected areas. If you have access to the Internet, you have access to IP. If you have access to IP, you can restore 4Ci in terms of voice and data.
  • Anything traversing a cable (aerial or buried) has a strong probability of being affected. Check into route diversity on cable facilities.
  • If New Orleans and Houston are any indication, electric power may be lost and require some time to restore. Plan for backup power, including -48 volts for telephone and PBX equipment. Also plan for a reliable fuel supply for your generator. Remember, if you run out of diesel fuel, it takes electricity to pump more at a service station!
  • Repair crews will have trouble getting into affected areas due to mobility and security concerns. Help may not be forthcoming immediately. Security often is inadequate in affected areas, so repair crews may be reluctant to service those areas.
  • If you provide an essential service (hospital, government, etc.), look into Government Emergency Telephone Service (GETS), Wireless Priority Service (WPS), and Telecommunications Service Priority (TSP). These government-sponsored programs allow for priority when phone lines are saturated and wireless frequencies fill up after a major disaster. Again, this capability helps you to maintain 4Ci.

Some final tips:

  • Arrange for flashlights and identifying vests for your own responders, so that they can be identified immediately and not mistaken for looters.
  • Buy two-way radios for use in the immediate response area.
  • Keep extra batteries for wireless phones and two-way radios.
  • Keep a roll of quarters close by. Although they're tough to find these days, pay phones often are restored first by the phone company.
  • Arrange in advance for your people to have access to cash. ATMs may not work for awhile, and lack of cash could hamper your response.
  • Use an outbound notification and inbound call-recovery service such as Telecom Recovery or Velleros.
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