Speaking from the dry, climate-controlled confines of the FCC headquarters in Washington, DC, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai had some sharp criticism this week for the efforts of the carriers in restoring cellular service to the areas of Florida, Georgia and Alabama affected by Hurricane Michael.
“Even though efforts to restore communications services have been going well in most of the areas affected by Hurricane Michael, the slow progress in restoring wireless service in areas close to where the hurricane made landfall is completely unacceptable,” Pai said in a prepared statement. He promised an investigation into the recovery efforts and joined Florida Gov. Rick Scott in calling on the carriers to waive the cellular bill for Floridians affected by the storm and allow them to change carriers without a penalty.
Reports from the carriers, however, told a different story. On Oct. 17, Verizon reported that the night it had made progress, restoring service to numerous sites throughout Bay County, which had the most extensive damage. On Oct. 11, 256 cell sites out of 327 or 78 percent were reported out of service, and by Oct. 17, it had dropped to 151 cell sites or 46 percent. Service was also returned to majority of Panama City Beach, along the Highway 79/388 loop around West Bay and in parts of downtown Panama City.
The damage in Florida went beyond the towers to include the fiberoptic arteries that connect them. ECN Magazine reported that that the storm caused “unprecedented damage” to the carrier’s fiber network in Panama City, Panama City Beach and the surrounding areas.
“The progress we made overnight was significant … With our primary fiber hubs restored, we will continue to rapidly restore additional service to the core of Panama City and Panama City Beach,” Verizon wrote on its web site.
Hans Vestburg, Verizon Wireless, tweeted on Oct. 17, “We have had another day and night of substantial progress in restoring our fiber & cell service in northwest Florida in & around Panama City Beach and Tyndall Airforce Base and elsewhere. More resources continue to come online, increasing number of new Wireless Emergency Communications Centers.” The carrier, which seemed to have taken the brunt of the barbs has committed to giving three months of free service to those affected by the storm.
T-Mobile reported on Oct. 17 that service in Bay and Gulf counties, including Mexico Beach, haf been largely restored. However, in Panama City, the carrier was on “standby to get remaining sites up as soon as fiber service is up and running.”
On Oct. 17, AT&T reported that its networks had “performed well” during the storm and had been restored to “more than 99 percent of normal in affected areas in Georgia and North Florida.”
“We continue to move quickly to keep our customers, FirstNet subscribers and public safety agencies connected as they work to keep our communities safe. We are currently supporting communications with portable cell sites (COLTs) and Emergency Communications Vehicles (ECVs) in numerous locations throughout affected areas in Florida and Georgia,” according to AT&T’s web site. Additionally, the carrier has a flying cell on wings hovering 200 feet above the ground in Mexico Beach, providing service to customers and first responders in the surrounding area.
Meanwhile back in Washington, Chairman Pai plans to to visit the Florida Panhandle on Oct. 19 to assess the damage and get an update on recovery efforts. During his trip, he plans to meet with service providers and government officials working to restore communications networks.
“The FCC has been working to support federal, state, and local partners, as well as communications providers and broadcasters, to ensure that communications services can be restored as quickly as possible,” Chairman Pai said in a prepared statement. “I look forward to getting an on-the-ground assessment and continuing to work to help residents and communities bounce back from this tragic storm. In particular, I hope to see that wireless coverage in the area near where the hurricane made landfall is being restored more quickly than was the case earlier this week.”