NEW YORK, NY — Wireless carrier T-Mobile, one of Puerto Rico’s main service providers, had no communication at all with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority in the hours after Hurricane María knocked out power to the island, which virtually cut off telecommunications as a result, said Jorge Martel, the company’s general manager of the local operation.
“As you all know, Hurricane María was an unprecedented phenomenon. Given the catastrophic nature of the hurricane, almost all wireless communication was unavailable in the immediate aftermath,” Martel said during a listening session held by the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico on the “Future of Puerto Rico’s Energy Sector” in this city Thursday.
“Starting with absolute no commercial power, absolutely no information on PREPA’s recovery or healing plan, and very limited backhaul circuits [fiber optic connectivity,] T- Mobile had to rely almost completely on alternative means, such as temporary generators [which required constant refueling,] and new satellite communications and microwave links for connectivity. In fact, still to this day, T-Mobile is currently operating 33 percent of our sites with generators, consuming 5,000 gallons of diesel daily,” he told Oversight Board members during a panel discussion on recovery and restoration post-hurricane.
That lack of communication from the only power provider in Puerto Rico represented setbacks in the recovery of vital telecom services for millions on the island.
During his participation, Martel offered a number of recommendations to establish resiliency in commercial power and telecom services, to avoid — or lessen the impact of — a repeat of last year’s emergency situation.
“It is critical that the telecom industry is treated as a priority and, as such, have detailed knowledge of PREPA’s recovery plans, as is common practice in other jurisdictions,” he said. “We need to have energy generation facilities in closer geographical proximity to main population areas.”
Furthermore, T-Mobile believes priority should be given to power redundancy on key telecom facilities, while carefully addressing confidentiality and cyber security aspects.
Another suggestion is for joint government and private investment in underground fiber circuits and power, which will help provide more resiliency, not only to telecom carriers, but also retail, banking, manufacturing and other industries. This should include connectivity to remote areas as the islands of Vieques and Culebra, he said.
The carrier also suggested a need to rewrite Puerto Rico’s laws that are restricting or limiting the use of right of ways (ROWs) by all utilities to include wireless companies, and modifying ordinances forcing collocation due to separation requirement.
In the wake of the storm, T-Mobile has spent millions in restoring its network as well as assisting other entities, including the Federal Aviation Administration through a loan of a large generator to provide power to the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport’s radar, so it could resume operations.
As part of ongoing recovery efforts, T-Mobile plans to deploy its 600 megaherz infrastructure this year, to boost its islandwide 4G LTE network, Martel confirmed.
“This technology presents a positive impact to 4G LTE because it helps with coverage, especially for in-building signal and rural areas,” he said.
There is no specific deployment date yet, or an investment figure available for the improvements. Martel credited the Federal Communications Commission and Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González for speeding up the availability of the 600mhz spectrum, which was not scheduled to launch until 2019-2020.