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Fiber outages slow cell recovery after Hurricane Michael

Hurricane Michael's 155 mile per hour winds knocked out fiber networks needed for wireless service.

Since Hurricane Michael roared through on Oct. 10, a wide swath of Florida's northwest coast has been without telephone or internet service.
Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images

When Hurricane Michael barreled into the Florida Panhandle last week, the Category 4 storm with sustained winds of 155 miles per hour not only tore down electrical wires knocking out power for hundreds of thousands residents, but it also ripped apart fiber networks necessary for delivering broadband and mobile phone service to the region.

Over the weekend, Verizon, the nation's largest wireless carrier, said that damage to its fiber optic network has greatly affected its efforts to get service restored in the hardest hit areas following the storm.

While service has been restored to 99 percent of customers in Georgia and 98 percent of affected customers in Florida, as of Monday morning, the areas around Panama City, Panama City Beach and the surrounding communities where the storm first came ashore are still without reliable cell service, according to Verizon spokeswoman Karen Schultz.

She explained that in some cases even after service is restored, it quickly goes out again. New fiber cuts arise as recovery workers begin clearing roads and removing debris from residential properties, and as electric poles get replaced.

"Our fiber crews are working around the clock to make repairs," Schultz said Monday. "While they are making good progress, we are still experiencing new fiber cuts as soon as repairs are made."

By Monday evening, Verizon said it was able to restore service in four major cell sites in Mexico Beach and around Panama City.  

Additionally, the company has launched a manned aerial vehicle carrying a flying cell site over Mexico Beach to provide coverage from above.  Now that service is restored in much of near Mexico Beach, Verizon said it will move the aerial vehicle around to other sites still without service. 

It's not surprising given the hurricane is already being called one of the most destructive storms that has made landfall in the Florida Panhandle. Many structures in towns, like Mexico Beach, are missing roofs or were simply flattened by the heavy winds.

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Fiber is a key part of modern wireless networks, since signals transmitted over the air eventually make their way onto fiber either strung on utility poles or underground. High winds -- like the ones experienced from Michael -- can uproot trees that fall on utility lines or knock over entire poles. Flooding can also damage fiber deployed underground. As a result, broadband wireless service can be knocked for an entire region.

Schultz said that in areas where fiber hasn't been repaired yet, Verizon has deployed cell towers on wheels and is using satellite instead of fiber to connect back to the main network.

The other major carriers, such as AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile, all say they have restored service in most areas, but are still experiencing outages the Florida Panhandle, where there are still fiber outages. Like Verizon, they're relying on cell on wheels with satellite connectivity in places where fiber connections are not functioning.

Nearly 300,000 households were still without home internet, phone or TV service in Florida, Georgia and Alabama on Sunday, according to the Federal Communications Commission on Monday morning. And about 15 percent of cell sites in 21 Florida counties were still without wireless service. But where possible, carriers are quickly restoring service, cutting in half the percentage of affected cell sites since Thursday, according to the FCC's report on Monday.

AT&T said as of Monday afternoon on its website that service is almost "fully restored in most affected areas." It said the network has performed well due to the fact that the company was well-prepared for the storm with "dozens of pieces of equipment across the southeast ready to respond quickly and efficiently when minutes mattered most."

On its customer support page,T-Mobile noted that service in North Carolina, Georgia and Virginia sites is almost fully recovered. But in the Florida Panhandle, "particularly areas such as Panama City, Quincy, and Marianna where power and fiber transport outages are widespread, will likely experience a longer recovery timeline."

Meanwhile, about 182,000 people in Florida were without power as of Sunday afternoon, according to the New York Times. And many may not have service restored for up to two months, the newspaper has reported. The situation is the most dire in three counties hit directly by Michael with between 91 and 99 percent of power customers without service as of Sunday.

"It's almost like a huge bulldozer went down the middle of Panama City and straight up through," said Jeff Rogers, a Gulf Power spokesman told the New York Times. "This is kind of the Super Bowl of all big storms."

October 16, 6:42 a.m. PT: This story was updated with additional information regarding Verizon's recovery efforts.

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