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Wireless vendors pledge hurricane relief

Cingular and Nextel step in to aid those recovering from Hurricane Charley in Florida.

Cingular Wireless and Nextel Communications have offered their aid to those recovering from Hurricane Charley in Florida.

Charley, the worst storm to pummel the state in a dozen years, ravaged the southern portion of the state last Friday, leaving thousands of people homeless. The two wireless service providers have promised to provide communications support for emergency workers, free calling stations for displaced residents and other help to victims.

Roughly 150,000 Floridians remained without local phone service, and 900,000 households had no power as of Monday, according to the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

The department said the death toll has risen to 19. Officials said the 140-mile-per-hour winds and torrential rain have caused as much as $11 billion in damage to insured homes.

Nextel said late Monday that only a small percentage of its sites across Florida were impaired by Charley and that most of its affected facilities were back up and running. The company said its biggest headaches were in the Fort Myers area, where power outages crippled landline services that connect its cell sites to switching stations.

As part of Nextel's effort to lend a hand, the wireless carrier said it has provided more than 1,900 free handsets to emergency response teams and armed some 40,000 workers with a high-priority version of its Direct Connect "push to talk" service. The company said it introduced the technology earlier than planned throughout the region in order to help recovery efforts.

"Nextel's No. 1 concern is for the safety and well-being of our customers, employees and the community," Tom Gawronski, a regional vice president at Nextel, said in a statement. "As part of our emergency preparedness plan, Nextel has been working around the clock since before the hurricane hit Florida, and we will continue these efforts as long as they are needed."

The carrier said it has deployed nearly 300 mobile generators and four mobile satellite cell sites on wheels to aid in overall network restoration. The services are meant to extend support to police, fire and emergency medical services, as well as utilities, disaster relief workers and a range of government agencies.

Meanwhile, Cingular, the wireless joint venture controlled by SBC Communications and BellSouth, said it has opened emergency calling stations at its company-owned stores in the areas hardest hit by Charley, including its Orlando, Lakeland, Cape Coral, North Port, Fort Myers and Naples locations. People going to those sites will be allowed to make free phone calls anywhere in the United States.

"Since there are so many communities which have been devastated by the hurricane, we want to make it as convenient as possible so that those who need to make a phone call can do so without traveling too far out of their way," Dan Norman, vice president at Cingular, said in a statement.

The company said it also is sending a fleet of truck-mounted mobile cell sites to the Punta Gorda area, considered one of the worst-hit regions in Florida, to offer free calls to people without landline services.