Power and Backhaul can be the two biggest challenges to restoring wireless networks, Chris Coltrain, T-Mobile manager, engineering operations, told the audience during the AGL Local Summit in Fort Worth last week.
Coltrain had just come back from three weeks living on a barge in Puerto Rico, working on bringing the carrier’s network back online when he spoke on the panel, “The Carriers Talk Back: How Can You Better Serve Them?”
He served on the carrier’s strike team going into Houston for Hurricane Harvey and deploying into Miami for Hurricane Irma, as well as spending three weeks in Puerto Rico for Hurricane Maria. Coltrain was among dozens of T-Mobile experts on the island, whose specialty is to fix communications systems after natural disasters. Additionally, 100 members of T-Mobile’s Emergency Volunteer Team were deployed to help with recovery efforts.
Carriers had problems keeping their towers up and running after Harvey because the flooding forced them to use boats to get fuel to the generators.
“Hurricane Harvey was two storms in one. You had the wind event that damaged some aerials and some towers, and then you had the flooding that took place in Houston,” Coltrain said. “We could get sites on the air. We had backhaul, but we couldn’t readily get fuel to them.”
The major problem experienced after Irma was a large power outage but the electric companies got the lights back on fairly quickly, he said.
Upon landing in Puerto Rico, Coltrain was presented with a situation with massive power outages, which wasn’t going to go away as quickly. Exacerbating the problem, there was a minimal number of generators and a severe shortage of diesel fuel.
“Puerto Rico brought in new challenges. Everything we needed was either a half-million-dollar plane ride or 14 days away,” he said.
Since then 130 portable generators have been deployed on the island fueled by thousands of gallons of fuel that have been delivered to the island. A total of 12 freight aircraft brought supplies and personnel to the island. Additionally, multiple barges brought trucks, cells on wheels (COWs), cells on light trucks (CoLTS), RVs and diesel trucks.
Another big problem was backhaul. T-Mobile and the other carriers all depended on an aerial fiber provider, which lost 90 percent of its lines.
“Every carrier has to rebuild their AAV [alternative access vendor] tower backhaul networks,” Coltrain said. “We are using any type of technology we can find, from RADWIN hops to licensed microwave hops to Gilat and VSAT, which is extremely limited. The network in Puerto Rico is going to be limited to voice and text for some time.”
So far, T-Mobile engineers have restored service at more than 220 sites including San Juan, Guaynabo, Toa Baja, Bayamón, Ponce, Carolina, Ceiba, San Germán and Rio Grande.
As of Oct. 20, AT&T said it had deployed 17 mobile cell sites, five emergency communications portables and nearly 600 generators. Further, as of Oct. 26, coverage had been restored to 65 percent of the population, and 13 million calls and 6.5 million texts a day week were being processed on the AT&T network.
By Oct. 11, Vanu had three satellite-based cell sites up and running for AT&T in Puerto Rico with 30 soon to be set up.
“All the carriers have been good at getting coverage where we need to get coverage, but there were people that are still out of touch,” Coltrain said.
The ordeal in Puerto Rico is far from over. It is expected to take 18 months to restore electricity to the entire island, because of the 1950’s technology that is in use there. Until the power comes back, 45,000 to 50,000 gallons of diesel will be burned a week to keep the towers running. With diesel costing up to $5 a gallon, the price of communications will be high.
Coltrain advised the tower companies at the conference that they should provide generators at every site to be used on a shared basis by the carriers.
“You can provide us with shared generators,” he said. “During a disaster, you have to have power and you have to have backhaul.”
Beyond getting the networks back online, carriers are helping the people on the island financially.
T-Mobile has pledged $10,000 to Team Rubicon, a veteran-run disaster relief organization, for hurricane recovery efforts, for every Major League Baseball postseason home run, and an additional $1 every time consumers tweet using #HR4HR. Beginning with Game 1 of the World Series, T-Mobile upped its pledge $20,000 for every home run. Coincidently, the teams had slugged a World Series record 24 out of the park for a $480,000 donation.
Verizon increased its support for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, as well, from $1 million up to $5 Million, as the magnitude of recovery and relief efforts became clear, according to Verizon Chairman and CEO Lowell McAdam.
J. Sharpe Smith is a Senior Editor for AGL eDigest. He joined AGL in 2007 as contributing editor to the magazine and as editor of eDigest email newsletter. He has 27 years of experience writing about industrial communications, paging, cellular, small cells, DAS and towers. Previously, he worked for the Enterprise Wireless Alliance as editor of the Enterprise Wireless Magazine. Before that, he edited the Wireless Journal for CTIA and he began his wireless journalism career with Phillips Publishing, now Access Intelligence.