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FCC learns of Puerto Rico energy co.’s refusal to work with telecoms post storms

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) heard directly from Puerto Rico government and private sector officials about the lack of coordination between the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) and the communications sector in post-hurricane recovery efforts.

During a virtual hearing on the “Impact to communications of Hurricanes Fiona and Ian,” Liberty Puerto Rico CEO Naji Khoury, Arturo Massol-Deyá, executive director of Casa Pueblo, and Enrique Volckers-Nin, Deputy Secretary on Innovation, Information, Data, and Technology for the governor’s office, offered testimony, mostly agreeing that efforts are falling short.

“The power grid in Puerto Rico remains susceptible to natural disasters, frequent prolonged outages and generation issues that make it unstable and in need of improvements,” Khoury said during his turn to testify on Liberty’s experience post-Fiona in September.

“Further, when faced with a natural disaster such as Hurricane Fiona, the power sector faces extreme pressure to restore service, and unfortunately the adequate communication procedures still are not in place to make sure communications providers can communicate effectively with the power sector. Our largest system outage resulted from a cable cut caused during the restoration of a power line,” he told FCC commissioners during the hearing presided by Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel.

Rosenworcel and other agency commissioners have shown a personal interest in the status of the island’s telecom industry in the wake of hurricanes María in 2017 and Fiona two months ago. She visited the island last month and met with a handful of sector representatives, as News is my Business reported.

After Hurricane María, the FCC established two funds — Uniendo a Puerto Rico and Connect US Virgin Islands — to help telecom providers harden their networks with hefty long-term allocations.

During the hearing, Khoury confirmed that Liberty has used the financial support to equip 100% of its mobile sites with battery backup systems and 90% of them with permanent power generators. More than 70% of the company’s fiber to the core is buried, he said.

Communications breakdown
But during his testimony, Khoury brought up an issue that may go to the heart of the communication breakdown between the sector and power authorities. He told the FCC that for the past six years, he has been trying unsuccessfully to get a seat in PREPA’s emergency operations center, to get an inside track on energy recovery efforts.

“In terms of the communication with the power company, allow me to be very transparent in this answer. I have been trying to fight for almost six years and I have failed to have a seat in the emergency operating center in the power authority to coordinate the restoration process,” he said. “I have failed, and it has not worked. I have attempted and failed every single time.”

“That is something that can be very helpful in the process. Second, there is unfortunately on the island a tremendous amount of finger-pointing in the process of the restoration, within the generation versus the distribution,” he said.

Private operator LUMA Energy oversees running PREPA’s power distribution and transmission services, while the public corporation handles power generation throughout the island.

“These are two different aspects, two different challenges, but we could never get a straight answer for the distribution issue or the generation issue. One drives repair. One is just waiting for the generation to occur so power can be restored,” he said.

“That coordination was improved during Hurricane Fiona, but definitely not to the level that it should be and definitely not with the technology that we have today. The power grid in Puerto Rico is extremely fragile. It is causing massive costs to all of us,” he said.

Enrique Volckers-Nin, Deputy Secretary on Innovation, Information, Data, and Technology for the governor’s office.

‘Significant handicap’
During his turn, Volckers-Nin also acknowledged that Puerto Rico’s most significant handicap is a very outdated and fragile power system. That is coupled with a spike in demand for fuel, which after Fiona was limited.

“In the following days after the impact of Hurricane Fiona, the demand for fuel went down as PREPA and LUMA were able to restore power in most of the island. We did learn that fuel inventory is an area that the island needs to improve for future events, and I trust that actions will be taken to increase fuel inventory,” he said.

He also admitted that there is a problem with sharing information about the progress of recovery efforts.

“Multiple government entities are working with LUMA on this matter, such as the Public-Private Partnership Authority, the Puerto Rico Energy Bureau, and the Office of the Governor, which I represent,” he said.

After Hurricane Fiona, the Puerto Rico Innovation and Technology Services (PRITS) tried to connect LUMA’s Outage Management System to provide the availability status of feeders, to be used in the central government’s Emergency Management Assets System (PREMAS) to assess and react to the feeder’s impact on critical infrastructure.

“This includes but not limited to cell towers, central offices, hospitals, medical facilities, public safety sites, water pumps, and others. Unfortunately, at the time of this event, we could not synchronize these data sets, and worked with our system without the proper data connection to the power grid systems,” he acknowledged.

After Hurricane Fiona, the FCC activated its Disaster Information Reporting System, a repository of data that telecom providers operating in disaster zones provide as recovery progresses.

“The DIRS is a reporting tool that we all agree is very handy for the recovery efforts, but at a local level, there was a level of unwillingness to share this type of information with the local government, which we understand is a sensitive and confidential matter,” he said. “Without the needed information, it’s difficult to plan on fuel and emergency deployments during times of need.”

Casa Pueblo, a community organization in Adjuntas whose main facilities have been operating with solar energy since 1999.

Alternative sources of energy needed
Finding other ways of supplying communications towers when the power goes out — whether solar, batteries or other sources — is doable because the technology is out there, said Massol-Deyá, who heads Casa Pueblo, a community organization in Adjuntas whose main facilities have been operating with solar energy since 1999.

“It is a very doable approach. It can be done. The technology is out there. It works. In our case the design and the information took less than a month for us to have our transmission tower energized,” he said. “I think it has to be the way to go. We have to reduce the communication services footprint on the planet.” 

“We have to build energy resilience. It is not going to be done through the transmission and distribution lines. I think the system will keep failing Puerto Rico for different reasons. It is very urgent that we establish a policy in which we can yield as much power as we can at the point of consumption and reduce the vulnerability from the centralized system,” said Massol-Deyá, mentioning that the organization he heads is responsible for the proliferation of solar energy systems across the mountain town, including the one that energizes its own radio station, WOQI, 1020AM.

He said the transformation toward the adoption of renewable energy in the telecom sector will likely require a hybrid configuration with the public utility, involving solar and power generators as backup sources of energy.

“I think it can be done. It is political will. I think the resources have been allocated to Puerto Rico. Why not invest in that energy resilience for the communication infrastructure?” he concluded.

Author Details
Author Details
Business reporter with 30 years of experience writing for weekly and daily newspapers, as well as trade publications in Puerto Rico. My list of former employers includes Caribbean Business, The San Juan Star, and the Puerto Rico Daily Sun, among others. My areas of expertise include telecommunications, technology, retail, agriculture, tourism, banking and most other segments of Puerto Rico’s economy.

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