Liberty Puerto Rico — like countless companies across the island — has spent the better part of the last three months picking up the pieces of its network that Hurricane María destroyed, en route to restoring services and laying the groundwork for new offerings.
Naji Khoury, president of Liberty Puerto Rico, said the company’s technicians have accomplished “an incredible amount of work” over the past three months to repair waterlogged data centers and a fiber optic ring that was 100 percent wiped out.
“One hundred percent of our ring was affected. Either we had fiber cuts or a pole down or no power,” he said, confirming $100 million in infrastructure damage in the wake of Hurricane María’s Sept. 20th direct strike on Puerto Rico. “But we’re happy to report that we’re almost done repairing the network.”
In the weeks since the storm passed, Liberty’s assessment of affected homes fell in line with the numbers presented by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which estimated 70,000 homes in Puerto Rico suffered serious damage.
However, Khoury predicted that a similar number of families will migrate from those uninhabitable rural areas to urban centers, where Liberty is operating already and “is very strong.” So, the effects of the storm should be net for the provider.
“It’s good for us because we serve urban areas very well. It would also be good for Puerto Rico as a whole,” he said, confirming Liberty serves some 1.1 million homes islandwide.
Meanwhile, he said repairs to the portion of Liberty’s fiber optic ring that goes from Guayama to Humacao — where the storm entered the island — have yet to be completed.
“That area was very devastated. The rest is fully operational,” he said, adding that 82 percent of its customers who have had power restored so far, have Liberty services available to them. The remaining 18 percent are in neighborhoods that Khoury said are being visited on a daily basis.
“In some of those places, we’re having a tough time because of the structural damage, fallen poles, for example,” he said, noting Liberty expects to have 750 technicians on the ground completing repairs by the end of this month. That number is exponentially higher than the 180 technicians the provider normally has on staff in Puerto Rico.
Significant revenue losses; no rate increases planned
Aside from feeling the storm’s catastrophic effects on its network infrastructure, Liberty is reporting an additional $100 million in revenue losses. The company halted billing almost as soon as the storm passed.
Now, it is rebuilding a network that will make upgrades possible, particularly to video services, starting in mid to late 2018. Liberty plans to launch enhanced on-demand, an upgraded channel guide, and Cloud-based DVR services to enable customers to record in the cloud and watch programs on different devices, among other new offers.
“Video will be very important to us, and most of this was supposed to happen this quarter, but has been set back to late 2018,” he said, noting that when Liberty becomes part of Liberty Latin America and Caribbean operations on Jan. 2, it will follow a roadmap similar to what cable providers in Europe have laid down.
“Part of that roadmap is to follow what’s being offered in Europe, by companies like Virgin Media, for example, and in the U.S. by Xfinity. It’s exactly what you see with Xfinity,” he said, adding in preparation to launch advanced services, Liberty will receive enhanced set-top boxes at the end of next year.
The new services will be incorporated a no extra cost to consumers, he confirmed.
“We agreed internally that in 2018 we will not have any rate increases. We’re adding more speed and more goodies at the same price point customers have paid this year. We’re going to implement upgrades in internet speed, the platform, the guide, on-demand services and provide customers the ability to watch television on mobile for the same price they paid in 2017,” he said.
“All of this will only result in a stronger company that is committed to Puerto Rico, our customers, shareholders and employees,” Khoury said.
Liberty supports end of net neutrality
Meanwhile, Liberty has been keeping close tabs on what is taking place at the Federal Communications Commission, which today is expected to vote to repeal net neutrality — a hot button issue between network users and access providers for years.
“Our position was made public many years ago and it remains that we believe in an open internet,” Khoury said. “We believe in market forces. It has also been our policy that we will not block traffic. That’s not our strategy and it will never be.”
During today’s vote, the FCC will decide whether broadband will be reclassified as a deregulated service subject to market forces.
Banking on an end to net neutrality, Liberty believes that “what will happen [today at the FCC] will work if you believe in market forces. If you believe in heavy regulation, where government intervenes, tomorrow will not be good for you. It is our belief at Liberty that the internet is open and we’ll treat all traffic equally,” Khoury said.