Thousands of people in the path of Katrina are finding out that cell phones are not as wireless as they thought. Since cell calls are switched over to fiber-optic networks after they reach the nearest local cell tower, cell phones are of no use in areas where the local phone network is down--as it is in New Orleans and much of the surrounding areas.
To help, Cisco Systems is sending Mobile Communication Kits to the battered Gulf States. These portable devices, the size of a large suitcase, contain everything required to create an "IP-network-in-a-box." Hook it to a car battery or generator, and it can be used to make Voice-over-Internet-Protocol calls or send faxes, e-mail or video. That's because the system beams the data to a satellite, which in turn beams it back to a healthy node in the phone network so the traffic can continue its journey to its final destination. Up to 35 callers can make calls via the system, via either wired or wireless IP-based handsets.
Two of the systems are expected to arrive on Saturday, followed by four more that are enroute from SE Asia, where they were sent by Cisco after the Tsunami this Spring. In all, the company has plans to send a dozen units, and is also constructing more.