The Big Interview

Q&A: Justin Williams, AT&T – Total disaster recovery

Laura Hedges

02 Dec 2014



The AT&T NDR unit is essentially designed to ensure that the AT&T network is always available. Its aim is to be equipped to deal with any eventuality, whether that’s gravediggers accidently cutting through fibre in the ground, or natural disasters such as the earthquake that rocked Chile last year.

Comprising 43 dedicated members – and between 70-80 volunteers from the wider AT&T company – the NDR team spends 90% of its time on planning and preparing for any given disaster.

Four exercises are held per year, in locations all over the world, where these AT&T volunteers are trained up to work in any condition. The team aims to be as self-sufficient as possible in order to eliminate the possibility of being a burden to the disaster area they are trying to serve.

AT&T has a wide range of apparatus ranging from the fairly self-explanatory bog-in-a-bag for AT&T NDR volunteers camping out in disaster areas for days on end, right up to vast fibre-filled units specifically designed to attach to the inside of aircraft. Williams admits that the facility is by no means perfect, but its activities are heavily supported by senior executives at the company and the team learns from every mission it takes on.

“It is a really rewarding job, and a testament to the way that AT&T’s appetite for this has never diminished,” said Williams.

“Really tricky events and natural disasters sometimes remind people of how critical this infrastructure is, and despite changes in senior leadership at AT&T, the company has continued to invest in this kind of facility and for me, working on the ground and having to design and implement it, is great.”

Is there any crossover between the work you do and the humanitarian activity in these disaster areas?
Yes, we support and work with Télécoms Sans Frontières a lot and they come to all of our exercises. We also donate regularly and give them the option of publicity if they need it, because the comparison between our two organisations is perfect in that sense.

Another example is when we arrived in Chile [for the earthquake the country experienced in May 2013]. We weren’t arriving on a humanitarian brief and the airport was closed to anybody other than humanitarian organisations. But we have a regulatory affairs group that works with different governments around the world, and we were then able to be one of the first non-humanitarian flights into Santiago, Chile.

What kind of damage was there in Chile?
From a mobile perspective the damage was quite severe, and that is not uncommon, even in parts of the US; when these storms come through a lot of mobile masts do get destroyed.

The first task is to work out what you can respond the quickest to and where you can put the capacity back in. With our fleet of trucks and fibre on wheels, we can set up a service very quickly, and I think that was one of the areas where the Chilean government worked well with us. They were able to point out areas which we should respond most urgently to.

We have also supported, not necessarily humanitarian, but several local and federal events in areas of the US where mobile coverage is not as strong.

For example we supported a landslide around a campsite in a state in North America by implementing infrastructure to enable local NGOs to respond better and faster due to increased mobile coverage. We basically put a mobile system into the middle of a forest because they did not have the communications services available to deal with the situation.

So, although it might be slightly different in the US compared to the rest of the world, communications are key and without them, humanitarian issues become very much more problematic.

With the facility located in the UK, have you ever had to deal with any disasters here?
We haven’t yet. We were activated by some of the floods in the West Country and Gloucestershire earlier this year, and the 7/7 bombings also activated us and put us into deployment mode.

We are continually monitoring activity worldwide and trying to cut through the initial fog and confusion around these events to pinpoint what the real impact is from a network perspective.

But even if it doesn’t happen, you have to be absolutely ready to go.