By William Patrick | The Center Square
A bipartisan panel of state legislators slammed telecom giant AT&T for failing to appear Monday at a Joint Commerce Committee hearing at the Louisiana Capitol amid concerns over emergency communication failures.
AT&T mobile phone service failed in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, as did the telecom’s exclusive emergency responder communication network known as FirstNet.
At least four parishes and the city of New Orleans could not use their AT&T provided 911 call centers during and after the storm. Similarly, several local emergency preparedness offices were unable to communicate vital safety information to first responders and Louisiana residents in known disaster areas.
Seeking answers, lawmakers issued a request for appearance two weeks ago, but only a company lobbyist showed Monday to testify. The lobbyist could not answer technical questions about the company’s performance issues.
Rep. Stephanie Hilferty, R-Metairie, the committee’s vice chair, first addressed the issue with a series of questions that went unanswered, ultimately eliciting frustration from the southeast Louisiana lawmaker.
“It’s my understanding that the Orleans Parish 911 center asked for additional towers ahead of the storm and was told the AT&T system would perform and that they did not need those,” she said.
“I’m not familiar with that particular instance. I apologize,” said the AT&T lobbyist, Joseph Mapes.
“What is the difference between AT&T’s system and Verizon’s system? I have Verizon and it seemed to work while service for most people with AT&T phones went out during the storm,” Hilferty said.
“I cannot make the comparison between the two companies,” Mapes said.
“Is there anyone from AT&T who could speak to the technical nature of why some of these things went out during the storm that’s here with you today?” Hilferty asked.
“No, not here today. We can get written testimony about implementing repairs and reconstruction and the data is not in completely, especially on the 911,” Mapes said. “When it comes in, we’ll give a full report to this committee.”
“I was hoping someone would be here today to explain why the system went out and why weren’t additional precautions taken given we knew the size and nature of the storm as it was coming on shore,” Hilferty said.
“We intend to learn from this,” Mapes responded.
Rep. Bryan Fontenot, R-Thibodaux, said it was “disheartening” AT&T did not send a single representative to the committee hearing. He recounted stories of people who needed help and could not call for emergency services.
“This state has probably spent $2 billion to get a communications system that works in times of emergency,” Fontenot said. “This is not about being able to check my Facebook. This is about the ability to communicate when people’s lives are on the line. We pay for that. Our tax dollars pay you for that.”
Rep. Tanner Magee, R-Houma, echoed his disappointment and said he had to leave his home in Houma and drive as far as Baton Rouge to gain cell phone service to call into the state Emergency Operations Center.
“What good is a first responder network if it doesn’t work in the first 48 hours?” Magee asked.
Sen. Cameron Henry, a Republican representing parts of Jefferson and Orleans parishes, took issue with AT&T charging residential and business customers for hotspot access in light of the company’s network failures, which lawmakers said continued up to the committee meeting.
“I would strongly advise to them, in a breathtakingly strong manner,” Henry told the AT&T lobbyist, “that we expect our constituents to receive some form of credit and relatively soon.”
When questioned by Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, Mapes couldn’t say whether FirstNet was even operable Monday – 21 days after Hurricane Ida hit Louisiana – though Mapes said he received a text saying it was operable moments before he ended his committee testimony.
“It is fruitless for us to sit here and question you,” Carter Peterson said. “My recommendation is for the Division of Administration to cancel the FirstNet contract with AT&T and do an emergency contract in the next 48 hours for the provision of emergency communications as we are still in hurricane season.”