T-Mobile offers free Wi-Fi in Charley's wake

Cellular companies are ready to bolster coverage, if needed

T-Mobile USA Inc. said last night it would offer free wireless Internet connections through Monday at the roughly 300 Wi-Fi hot spots it operates in Florida in the wake of Hurricane Charley.

A spokesman for T-Mobile, located in Bellevue, Wash., said it is offering the service to help people displaced from their homes by Hurricane Charley, which lashed much of Central Florida last night with heavy rain and hurricane-force winds last night.

The hurricane is now over the Atlantic and moving north up the U.S. East Coast.

State and local authorities had ordered the evacuation of 2 million people ahead of the storm, which made landfall in Florida yesterday afternoon and then crossed the state. The free Wi-Fi service is aimed at helping provide Internet access to people forced from their homes or businesses by the storm, T-Mobile said.

T-Mobile, which normally charges $9.99 a day or $29.99 a month for Wi-Fi service, said most of its hot spots in Florida operate in partnership with large national chains, including bookstores operated by Borders Groups Inc., in Ann Arbor, Mich., coffee shops run by Starbucks Corp., based in Seattle, and copy centers run by FedEx Office and Print Services Inc., owned by FedEx Corp. in Memphis.

A spokesman for SBC Communications Inc. in San Antonio said the company has not yet decided to offer free Wi-Fi service in Florida, but said, "it is something we would consider." SBC provides paid Wi-Fi service at just over 200 outlets in Florida, primarily at The UPS Store shipping and copying centers operated by United Parcel Service Inc. in Atlanta.

The T-Mobile spokesman said the free service offer applies only to Wi-FI hot spots and not the company's cellular service.

Nationwide cellular carriers said they had ample resources in place to ensure service to customers in the aftermath of the storm.

Cingular Wireless in Atlanta said in a statement that its switching centers have backup emergency generators. Cell sites have high-capacity battery backups, and some have emergency generators, ensuring a secure source of power, if needed.

Cingular also has pre-positioned self-contained mobile cell sites, known as Cellular on Wheels Systems (COWS), which can be towed or driven into a disaster area to provide extra call capacity or to restore communications in an area with downed or knocked-out cellular towers.

Sprint Corp. in Overland Park, Kan., said in a statement that its Sprint PCS division has also set up COWS in Florida to help with network recovery efforts if needed.

Verizon Wireless, in Bedminster, N.J., said it also has its own fleet of COWS and Cells On Light Trucks that can be quickly rolled into a disaster area to provide extra network capacity. Verizon Wireless, in a statement, also noted that it conducted a nationwide disaster preparation drill earlier this year which simulated how it would handle a Florida hurricane.

Verizon Wireless said more than 80% of its transmission sites in Florida have their own back up generators. It also has mobile generators available, should they be needed.

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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