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Puerto Rico wireless carriers weather Hurricane Fiona, despite blackout

Puerto Rico’s wireless carries weathered Hurricane Fiona with stronger networks and applied lessons from what they experienced five years ago after Hurricane María.

This time around, the carriers were able to deliver service to most of its footprint, as winds picked up, communities were flooded, and power went out.

In an interview with News is my Business, Jorge Martel, general manager of T-Mobile Puerto Rico, said several factors are differentiating the carrier’s performance during this disaster: a network that’s twice the size it was compared to 2017 when María hit; triple the number of submarine substations providing fiber optic connections to and from Puerto Rico; and its 600-megahertz band that offers more coverage and efficiency, Martel said.

Still, Hurricane Fiona brought challenges to its traffic.

“We were able to offer continuous coverage to most municipalities in Puerto Rico. We lost coverage in some areas, but we were able to offer high-speed data, which showed a 50% jump in traffic,” he said. “We’re attributing this to the fact that many ISP providers went down.”

“We’re seeing 44% more calls now than prior to the storm too,” he said.

However, the shortcoming that all carriers have, which affect signal and service, are rooftop sites, where backup generators cannot be installed and fiber cuts because of landslides or rescue efforts.

“Overall, the network did very well. There are some areas, like the southwest, that were greatly impacted and we’re working with that,” he said, adding that T-Mobile’s network is at above 80% in terms of usage.

An estimated 30% of the carrier’s network is currently running with backup generators, he said. Meanwhile, 52 of its 74 stores are open. The locations that remain closed are in malls that have yet to restart operations.

“Our stand-alone stores are running on generators, and we’ve moved the employees from the closed stores to the ones offering service because — and we were not expecting this at all — our sales have increased at record levels in the past few days, and when compared to a year ago,” Martel said. “We learned from María that you not only take care of the network, but you need to provide service to people.”

Ahead of the storm, T-Mobile opened its network to competitors, who did the same, to ensure roaming capacities were available for customers who lost service as Hurricane Fiona hit.

“During a natural disaster, if our network isn’t running at 100% capacity, it’s our policy to immediately request service where we need it,” said Martel. “We take our competitor’s hat off because at this moment, the priority is Puerto Rico.”

Liberty Mobile, which bought the AT&T wireless network in Puerto Rico, provided roaming in specific areas where T-Mobile saw greatest impact, namely towns along the island’s northern coast, Ponce and Vieques.

On Wednesday, Liberty Mobile sent a message to its subscribers offering an update of its networks, including the disclosure of its response from T-Mobile to “allow their customers to access our mobile network in some areas to help them stay in touch during this emergency.”

Naji Khoury, CEO of Liberty Mobile, denied that putting the info out there was a marketing move.

“That was not our intention at all. We were talking straight to our customers,” he said.

Liberty Mobile’s network is covering 99% of the island, which Khoury attributed to having more buried fiber and more cell sites, more resilient towers, and 85% of cell sites equipped with generators. Buried fiber can resist water, so flooding is not an issue.

“Equipment no, it can’t resist water. But we haven’t had any flooded equipment,” he said.

As of Thursday, 11% of the carrier’s cell sites were running with generators, which Khoury said is not affecting customer abilities to make phone calls.

“Getting those cell sites back to normal will depend on the electric power because we cannot install generators where they are. It’s going to be a long process, but I think 90% [capacity] is great,” he said, adding that Liberty Mobile is negotiating with certain landlords to install backup generators on cell sites — which are usually on rooftops — that don’t have them.

Khoury acknowledged that Hurricane Fiona was not the first real test for the networks post-Hurricane María, which in 2017 sent the island into a communications blackout by toppling towers and severely damaging infrastructure.

Other storms since then, as well as the four-day blackout in April, have already put network capacities in Puerto Rico to the test, he said.

Author Details
Author Details
Business reporter with 29 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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