Cellphone Companies Struggle to Restore Service in Puerto Rico - NBC 5 Dallas-Fort Worth
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Cellphone Companies Struggle to Restore Service in Puerto Rico

Widespread lack of electricity is making the job difficult

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    NEWSLETTERS

    The U.S. military visited the city of Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, as the area is dealing with massive damage to buildings and homes, as well as electrical and water infrastructure, from Hurricane Maria. Other US agencies like the Coast Guard, FEMA, Red Cross, the Puerto Rican Emergency Management Agency and Puerto Rican police are also making their way through Humacao, Puerto Rico, bringing aid, meals and water with them. (Published Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017)

    Telecommunications companies are working together to restore service in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria damaged equipment at 90 percent of the island’s cell sites, but they continue to be hampered by a lack of electrical power and other destruction.

    Cell service has been restored to 28.5 percent of the island, Gov. Ricardo Rossello said on Thursday, mostly in the San Juan metropolitan area, up from 25 percent on Friday.

    But the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority reported that nearly 100 percent of its customers were still without power Thursday morning with the exception of some critical facilities and those with generators.

    “The electric power grid in Puerto Rico is totally shot,” President Donald Trump tweeted Thursday morning. “Large numbers of generators are now on island. Food and water on site.”

    Hurricane Maria tore diagonally across Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, devastating the U.S. territory as it made landfall as a Category 4 storm on the main island, knocking out its power and water and destroying roads and bridges. Two weeks earlier, Hurricane Irma skirted the island but plunged more than 1 million people into darkness.

    Residents have waited in long lines for fuel, water and cash and struggled to find areas with cell service.

    The Federal Communications Commission said on Thursday said that 90.3 percent of the island’s 2,671 cellular sites -- equipment that receives or transmits the signal from a cellphone -- were not functioning. A cell tower may contain multiple cell sites for different wireless providers.

    The FCC is sending four people to Puerto Rico at the request of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to coordinate an emergency response and conduct radio frequency assessments. The FCC said Tuesday it hoped to have the team on the ground by Wednesday. But on Wednesday, one week since the storm hit, the FCC said the personnel were still awaiting FEMA approval to deploy. It had said it needed to make sure its personnel would have lodging and other support.

    The FCC deployed four people to both Texas and Florida after hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

    “I also reached out to FEMA Administrator Brock Long and his staff and emphasized the importance of prioritizing the delivery of fuel, generators and other equipment on the island to communications providers in order to get their networks up and running,” FCC chairman Ajit Pai said Tuesday.

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    But Retired Rear Admiral David G. Simpson, who served as chief of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau under President Barack Obama, said that the challenges to restore services in Puerto Rico were magnitudes greater than in Texas and Florida. The Trump administration and the current FCC chairman had been slow to recognize the difference, he said.

    “The approach to recovery appears to have been resigned to a 'lag' effort (we’ll wait till power is restored and minimum comforts are in place),” Simpson wrote in a message. “Telecommunications in our internet based economy should be a ‘lead effort.’”

    The need is not just for cellphones but also for ATMs and supplies for hospitals. Restoring the econonmy, now so dependent on electronic networks, requires investing in and restoring communications infrastructure. 

    The FCC should be on the ground with FEMA, the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security to triage the deployment of emergency communications for civilians, he said. It is uniquely suited to understand the commercial communications market, who the providers are and what options are available.

    In Haiti, the FCC led a study to evaluate the companies providing communications services and their capacity to fund the restoration of their infrastructure, Simpson said.

    “This can’t start soon enough in Puerto Rico,” he said. “If it doesn’t, we’ll leave Puerto Rico with telecommunications 'band aids' that aren’t ready for the next storm, further erode the lack of universal service on the island and don’t support the affordable broadband service that Puerto Rican communities deserve.”

    Jose Otero, a wireless industry expert, said that restoring phone service should be a priority so that other relief efforts, including getting supplies from the ports and airports to where they are needed, can be coordinated.

    Otero, the director of Latin America and the Caribbean for 5G Americas, a wireless advocacy organization, said his main worry was electric power.

    “The electricity before the first hurricane struck was in really bad shape, after years of lack of maintenance, and upgrades and modernization of the company, huge amount of debt and that’s another crisis that Puerto Rico has and a lot of it is caused from that electric utility,” he said.

    AT&T, T-Mobile, Claro, Sprint and Open Mobile are the main mobile service providers in Puerto Rico, where government data shows a cellphone penetration rate of nearly 100 percent, according to Reuters.

    Maria Victoria Cebollero, who is studying finance at the University of Puerto Rico Mayaguez campus, said via Facebook Messenger that she did not have cell service from her provider Sprint. However, the 20-year-old student does have Wi-Fi at home because her router is from Claro, the island’s largest telecommunications services company.

    “Thanks to our land line and the Wi-Fi we receive from Claro, our house looks like a command center or an oasis of communication,” she wrote. “We have dozens of people in our house that get to use our signal to contact their loved ones in the United States or around the metro area.”

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    She said neither Sprint nor T-Mobile had cell service on the west side of Puerto Rico.

    The first person she was able to communicate with after the hurricane — on Saturday at 8 p.m. — was a friend who studies at Bowdoin College in Maine.

    “We were shocked,” she said. “We were overjoyed that we were able to hear each other and amazed that the call got through after trying to communicate with some in the U.S.”

    Facebook has sent its connectivity team to assist the island in getting back online.

    And the FCC has helped to ensure that Claro Puerto Rico and Open Mobile received generators and other critical equipment, Pai, the FCC chairman, said.

    Another resident, 52-year-old Maria Santiago, said that she never lost service or a Wi-Fi signal during or after the hurricane. Santiago, who is retired and who uses AT&T as her carrier, was able to update her Facebook status that she was safe and well. She also could make calls and texts to her relatives, especially to her daughter who is studying at graduate school in New York City.

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    “I was able to get service throughout everything, although the service sometimes will sound poorly,” she wrote.

    By contrast, Michelle Pereira, a 23-year-old law student at the University of Puerto Rico, lost her AT&T cell service the day Maria struck. Pereira, who lives in Caguas, said that she was aware that AT&T had started restoring service, but said she had been unsuccessful whenever she tried to make a call or use the internet.

    “If you’re lucky enough and you try many times, sometimes you’re able to get a call through,” she said on WhatsApp, using her neighbor’s Wi-Fi.

    Security has been a problem at some cell towers. On Tuesday, the president of the Telecommunications Regulatory Board in Puerto Rico, Sandra Torres, denounced the theft of copper and fuel from power generators at signal towers. Torres said that she was working with the Department of Homeland Security.

    “This has become a vicious circle,” she told the publication Primera Hora. “After an effort was made to get the diesel, the drivers to transport it and the security measures to break through and carry fuel to the towers, they are stealing it and cutting the fiber.”

    Employees at Claro Puerto Rico are working around the clock to restore service, said its director, Ileana Molina.

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    “We are going to connect Puerto Rico,” she said.

    Open Mobile had restored partial service, from 20 percent in San Juan to lower rates elsewhere, said Josue Gonzalez, the vice president of marketing. He said that while Hurricane Maria was a Category 5 storm — which it was before striking Puerto Rico — Puerto Ricans were a Category 10.

    And he also urged the FCC to help with fuel and security problems.

    “We are working to open several stores next week so our customers can connect via Wi-Fi and can communicate with their loved ones,” he said. “In addition we will have solar chargers for cellphones for people who do not have charge to recharge their cellphone.”

    AT&T said that it had landed a large cargo plane in San Juan on Thursday with network equipment, including portable cell sites and satellite phones. It was sending another plane loaded with more portable cell sites and generators on Thursday and was planning additional supplies in the coming days.

    AT&T will use the portable cell sites in areas that are without service, including the municipalities of Mayagüez, Ponce, Rio Grande, Humacao, Cidra and Aguadilla, Telemundo Puerto Rico reported.

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    More than 12,250 people have signed up for a website that allows anyone to register the cellphone number of a relative or friend who is an AT&T wireless customer in Puerto Rico. When the Puerto Rico-based customer’s cellphone connects to the network in Puerto Rico, the customer is notified that their family or friends in the U.S. have been trying to contact him or her.

    T-Mobile is sending dozens of emergency and disaster experts, all of whom worked on hurricanes Katrina, Sandy and, more recently, Irma, and whose specialty is to fix communications systems after natural disasters. Its crews are trying to get generators to cell sites though it said that stolen generators and fuel have made security a concern.

    In the meantime, T-Mobile is offering free calling, texting and data.

    And Sprint’s first shipment of generators and parts required for restoration has arrived. Crews of engineers and technicians have joined the team on the island. Additional shipments and crew are on the way. 

    Its engineers are conducting a reconnaissance of sites both on the ground and from the air via helicopter, according to the company. Its towers are still standing and largely intact, and it will focus first on restoring power to the most populous areas and build out from there, it said. A cargo ship is on its way with fuel and the company has chartered another to transport additional fuel and larger power equipment early next week.

    Two of the companies that own the island’s cell towers, American Tower and Crown Castle, said that the majority of their towers are standing, but storm damage to carrier equipment and the loss of power had left few operational.

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    American Tower is performing full site audits on its 118 towers and identifying priorities, Matt Peterson, the vice president of communications, said in a statement. It is working with the FCC, FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security.

    “We are in active discussions with all of our customers to determine their priority sites,” he said.

    Crown Castle, which has 262 towers on the island, is also still conducting inspections.

    “So far, we have found that our towers maintained their structural integrity and continue to provide the infrastructure required to host our wireless carrier customers,” it said in a statement. “While the towers are intact, unfortunately the hurricane damaged carrier-owned antennae mounts and other carrier-maintained equipment.”

    It said it was working to bring additional resources, equipment, water and fuel to the island but faced logistical challenges.