In Irma’s aftermath, carriers scramble to restore service

Mobile operators have responded quickly following the devastating hurricane, but in areas pummeled by Irma cell service is still hard to come by.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
4 min read

Wireless service is being restored to millions of people recovering from Hurricane Irma, but for areas hardest hit by the storm widespread outages persist.

The nation's largest wireless carriers -- Verizon , AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile -- have worked around the clock to restore service to millions of customers in Florida and other areas affected by Hurricane Irma.

Watch this: Astronaut shares hurricane pictures from space

Wireless carriers have made steady progress getting cell sites back online this week. Nearly 87 percent of cell sites in Florida were up and running as of Thursday afternoon, according to a report from the Federal Communications Commission. This is compared to about 73 percent on Monday, a day after the storm passed through much of the state.

But in areas where Irma made landfall, such as the US Virgin Islands of St. John and St. Thomas in the Caribbean and the Florida Keys, restoring service has been much slower. As of Thursday, 90 percent of cell service on the island of St. John was still out. And in Monroe County, Florida, which includes the Keys, about 77 percent of cell sites were still not functioning, according to the FCC's report. More than 80 percent of cell sites were not functioning on Monday.

While wireless service is critical to your normal daily life, it can make the difference in life-and-death situations. Beyond simple phone calls, people use instant messaging, social media and other emergency apps in times of natural disasters. Over the last several weeks, carriers have been under pressure to ensure their service holds up in the face of Hurricane Harvey, and now Irma.

Florida Begins Long Recovery After Hurricane Irma Plows Through State

Many places in the Florida Keys still lack water, electricity or mobile phone service. The Federal Emergency Management Agency reported that 25 percent of all homes in the Florida Keys were destroyed and 65 percent sustained major damage when they took a direct hit from Hurricane Irma.

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Irma, which barreled through the Caribbean as a category 5 storm with winds up to 150 miles per hour hit the southernmost islands of the Florida Keys on Sunday morning with winds up to 130 miles per hour, leaving a trail of destruction. Almost every structure on St. John and St. Thomas were affected by the high winds. Roofs flew off of many structures in the Florida Keys as well.

The storm, which spanned the entire width of the state, weakened as it traveled north. But its effects were still felt throughout Florida as well as parts of Alabama and Georgia. For the most part, the networks held up pretty well. While much of the damage from Hurricane Harvey, which hit south Texas and Louisiana a week earlier, was due to flooding from heavy rains, most of the damage from Hurricane Irma was due to heavy winds.  

"This was a very different storm from Harvey," said Karen Schultz, a spokeswoman for Verizon.

Schultz said a cell tower in Fort Myers was completely blown over. The base station equipment was still operating throughout the storm, but the cell site had to be taken down for repairs.

"As much as we prepare for these catastrophic events by ensuring our buildings are on stilts and built to withstand category 5 hurricane winds, sometimes the storm is just too fierce," she said.

The biggest issue affecting service has been access to commercial power.  As many as 15 million people across the state lost power following the storm, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Power has been restored in some areas, but it could take weeks for electricity to be flowing in all areas of the state. This is problematic for infrastructure like the wireless network.

All four major wireless carriers say they have generators and back-up batteries at cell sites. But none have disclosed how many sites have this capability. For instance, Verizon said that most of its sites throughout the state of Florida have both back-up batteries and generators, but a spokeswoman noted that it's not always possible to have these back-up capabilities at every cell site, depending on where the tower is located.

Even with generators and batteries, this equipment can't run indefinitely without power from the grid. Batteries must be recharged and generators must be refueled. The extent of the storm damage in the hardest hit areas, like the Florida Keys, has made that job more difficult.

"There are many areas that continue to present challenges and hazards due to the widespread power outages as well as debris," said Lisa Belot, a spokeswoman for Sprint.

Getting back access to roads has also been key.

"We were able to get generators fully functioning much faster once Miami and the Keys reopened," a T-Mobile spokeswoman said.

Still, some consumer advocates say the Federal Communications Commission needs to be doing more to verify that wireless operators are as prepared as they claim to be. They have asked the FCC to set regulations spelling out how much of the infrastructure must have back-up power and also require wireless carriers to disclose which sites have this capability.

"Regardless of the technology and the circumstances of the storm," Regina Costa chair of the telecommunications committee of the National Association of State Utility Advocates, an organization that represents consumer interests on public utility matters. "We must strive to do better to ensure that everyone can make calls during emergencies."

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