Note: An op-ed published in Morning Consult.
In times of crisis, it’s vitally important that people can communicate with loved ones and emergency responders. That need came into sharp focus again this week as Hurricane Maria bore down on Puerto Rico, as Hurricane Irma did just a few weeks ago in Florida, knocking out power to millions and leaving neighborhoods submerged or inaccessible because of blocked streets.
Natural disasters like Hurricanes Maria, Irma and Harvey remind us about what’s important in life – family, faith, friends – and how easily the fabric of our lives and communities can be ripped apart when pounded by 130 mile-per-hour winds and several feet of water.
Communications networks in Puerto Rico and Florida were especially hard hit, thanks to an unforgiving combination of widespread power loss and standing water. The three storms provided a stark reminder of how a natural disaster’s unique characteristics can affect an area’s recovery efforts. Residents in Texas were able to get back online relatively quickly after Hurricane Harvey because local utility officials were able to restore the local electrical grid. Florida and Puerto Rico weren’t as fortunate.
Hurricanes can be particularly challenging for communications networks because high winds and water can damage facilities, bring down power lines and knock out cell towers and broadband lines. While many Americans were rightly evacuating from these dangerous storms, many public safety officials, nurses, doctors, media, utility companies and, yes, broadband providers, were running toward it.
After Hurricane Irma came ashore, AT&T established one portable cell site in Naples, four in the Florida Keys and another one in the U.S. Virgin Islands to help support recovery efforts. Verizon sent SPOTs (Satellite Picocells on Trailers), which provide LTE and voice services to the Keys to help the Florida Department of Law Enforcement with recovery operations. Verizon parked two mobile centers in Naples, one in a Home Depot parking lot and the other at a hospital, so residents could charge their phones or use computer workstations to get online.
These are but a few of the long list of efforts — operational, technical, and philanthropic — underway by dozens of broadband providers across the impacted areas, as companies like Consolidated Communications, CenturyLink, Smart City, Windstream and so many others geared-up to respond.
Even as residents in these states were struggling to cope with this disaster, there were flashes of real innovation and examples of how broadband and leading-edge technologies can help keep us all connected.
Apps like GasBuddy allowed those affected by the hurricanes to locate stations that still had fuel and Google Maps helped residents avoid closed roads in Florida. In the Texas Gulf Coast area, residents and volunteers used apps like Zello to help coordinate relief efforts when local 911 call centers went down. In Florida, residents stayed in touch using Nextdoor, a social media network for neighborhoods, to share information like which houses had electricity restored or tracking down lost pets.
After the storms passed in Florida and Texas, broadband providers launched an army of drones to check on equipment and determine if their trucks or boats could reach damaged facilities and refuel generators. Drones can dramatically decrease the amount of time it takes to restore service, as Verizon explained last year, noting that after Hurricane Matthew, it was able to determine from the drone’s video feed that some of its equipment hadn’t been damaged and generators could be safely refueled.
Despite all of these efforts, there is still more to be done.
Power outages in Puerto Rico are widespread after Hurricane Maria passed over the island on Wednesday. On Monday, the Federal Communications Commission reported that about 890,000 Florida residents remained without either cable or wired broadband service, although that number is likely less now. The agency stopped collecting outage information earlier this week as the power came back on in most parts of Florida.
During a trip to the state on Monday, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and Commissioner Mignon Clyburn toured Miami to get a better sense of the challenges faced by providers as they try to restore service. These storms also highlighted the importance of agencies like National Telecommunications & Information Administration, which oversees federal airwaves, to recovery efforts.
There will be time to drill down and do an important analysis about the lessons that can be learned by our public safety community, utilities and broadband providers about how to further improve our efforts to maintain (or quickly restore) the vital roads and networks which link our families, our businesses and our communities together. Right now, broadband providers are more focused on how to get customers in Puerto Rico and other areas back online as quickly as possible and how to help communities which have been torn apart by these terrible storms.
Jonathan Spalter is president and CEO of USTelecom.
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