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A Month After Maria Hammered Puerto Rico, Most Utilities Still Down

As Puerto Rico approaches the first month anniversary of Hurricane Maria, only small amounts of incremental progress have been made restoring the island’s telecommunications networks badly damaged by the storm.

Wireless Service

According to the Federal Communications Commission, 75.3% of Puerto Rico’s cell towers are still out of commission and many of those restored to service are functioning on generator backup, often using portable cell tower infrastructure that offers a fraction of the coverage area normal service used to provide. The majority of restored towers are in the immediate vicinity of San Juan, while many other parts of the island remain totally without service. Claro, a Mexican-owned cell company that used to offer the best coverage across Puerto Rico still remains the most reliable after the storm. All four wireless companies operating in Puerto Rico are offering free roaming to customers so as towers are restored to service, the companies can provide coverage to as many residents as possible.

Satellite Cells on Light Trucks (COLTs) have been deployed in Aguadilla, Arecibo, Cayey, Caomo Sur, Fajardo, Guayama, Manati, Mayaguez Mesa, San German, Vega Baja, and Yauco and Terrestrial Cells on Wheels (COWs)/COLTs in Humacao, Quebradillas, Rio Grande, and Utuado.

The FCC believes approximately 61% — one percent higher than last week — of the population can now get some cell signal. But that figure is slightly misleading because the largest percentage of the population lives around or in San Juan, the city with the best service restoration so far.

In contrast, most cell sites in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and the Florida Panhandle affected by two earlier hurricanes were restored to service within two weeks. Cellular providers point out the reason for the difference is the availability of commercial power and reliable backup generators, both not widely available in Puerto Rico even now.

The U.S. Virgin Islands, also devastated by Hurricane Marie, are also struggling with repair efforts. At least 55.4% of cell towers are out of service on those Caribbean islands, with 88.9% still down on St. John, the smallest of the three islands that make up the U.S. territory. Because repair efforts have been more effective on the other two islands, about 88% of the territory can now get a cell signal.

Electricity

NBC News reported today that 17.7% of Puerto Rico now has electricity, but it is very unreliable and there are daily outages that sometimes extend for hours. The Army Corps of Engineers hopes to have in place by next week — more than a month after Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico — two 25-megawatt generators at a plant in San Juan to help stabilize electricity there. The generators arrived Oct. 13, and a target date of Oct. 25 may be missed because of ongoing inclement weather. Once installed, the generators will extend electricity to about 30% of the island — mostly in the northeastern section around San Juan — and stabilize power for those who already have it.

The government is prioritizing electricity restoration for public safety and hospitals, public/government institutions including sewage and water treatment plants, schools, and then the island’s large pharmaceutical industry, which own several large drug manufacturing plants.

The order of priority the government is giving to service restoration is upsetting Claro, one of the island’s largest cell companies.

“Businesses and the government itself can hardly operate efficiently without an appropriate telecommunications structure,” said Claro representative Pedro Andrés. “For example, without telecommunication services the bank could not operate and that means that there would be no access to money for people, businesses could not handle electronic transactions, medical plans would not work and suppliers could not dispatch. That is, the country would be paralyzed.”

Andrés wants the power authority to make sure that electric service is restored to cell towers as soon as practical.

Residents are being told they can expect 95% electricity service restoration by Dec. 15.

Cable and Telephone

Liberty Cablevision of Puerto Rico is only working for about 1% of its customers, so it is focusing on offering free Wi-Fi hotspots for now.

Diesel generators are currently powering some of the island’s 911 service centers, which are now back up and running normally.

Cable service remains basically non-existent in Puerto Rico because of the lack of electricity. Liberty Cablevision of Puerto Rico has reported it has restored full service to about 1% of its customers, although a significantly higher number will have service back immediately after electricity is restored. Liberty promises automatic service credits for the duration of the outage and has told customers to ignore billing that was already in the mail when the storm hit. Liberty is currently focused on reaching and retaining the goodwill of its customers with a network of free Wi-Fi hotspots.

The island’s landline provider reports there are six central switching offices out of service on the island and there are problems connecting long distance calls.

Broadcast Media

The following TV stations are confirmed operational: WKAQ, WIPR, WIPN, WTIN, and WNJX, but these nine are still off the air: WAPA, WIPM, WTCV, WUJA, WELU, WECN, WRSV, WORO, and WRUA.

As of today, 44 AM radio stations are confirmed to be on-the-air: WA2XPA, WALO, WAPA, WBMJ, WBQN, WCMN, WCPR, WDEP, WENA, WEXS, WGDL, WI2XAC, WI2XSO, WI3XSO, WIAC, WIDA, WIPR, WISO, WJIT, WKAQ, WKFE, WKJB, WKUM, WKVM, WLEO, WLEY, WMDD, WMNT, WNEL, WNIK, WOIZ, WOLA, WPAB, WPPC, WPRA, WPRP, WQII, WSKN, WSOL, WTIL, WUKQ, WUNO, WVJP, and WXEW.

These 29 AM radio stations are confirmed out of service: WABA, WBSG, WBYM, WCGB, WCMA, WDNO, WEGA, WFAB, WGIT, WHOY, WIBS, WISA, WIVV, WLRP, WMIA, WMSW, WNVI, WOQI, WORA, WOSO, WQBS, WRRE, WRSJ, WRSS, WUPR, WVOZ, WYAC, WYEL, and WYKO.

There are 36 FM radio stations back on the air: WAEL-FM, WCMN-FM, WEGM, WERR, WFID, WIDA-FM, WIDI, WIOA, WIOA-FM1, WKAQ-FM, WLUZ, WMAA-LP, WMEG, WNVM, WODA, WORO, WOYE, WPRM-FM, WPUC-FM, WPUC-FM1, WQML, WRIO, WRRH, WRTU, WRXD. WTOK-FM, WUKQ-FM, WVDJ-LP. WVIS, WVJP-FM, WXLX, WXYX, WYQE, WZNT, WZNT-FM1, and WZOL.

But these 22 FM radio stations are still out of service: W227CV, WCAD, WCAD-FM2, WCRP, WELX, WFDT, WIOC, WIPR-FM, WJDZ, WMIO, WNRT, WNVE, WQBS-FM, WTPM, WVQR, WXHD, WYAS, WZAR, WZCA, WZET, WZMT, and WZOL-FM3.

FCC Readies $1 Billion for 1,000 TV Station Channel Changes

Phillip Dampier October 17, 2017 Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't, T-Mobile, Video No Comments

The FCC is preparing to pay about 1,000 TV stations and cable operators $1 billion dollars to subsidize necessary expenses to change over-the-air channels to make room for cell phone companies.

The channel changes are a result of a now-complete spectrum auction that will reallocate part of the UHF TV dial for use by cell phone companies for wireless broadband. Part of the auction proceeds will be used to reimburse TV stations and cable operators for the expenses associated with changing channel positions and equipment needed to receive those signals.

The move will significantly compress the UHF TV dial, requiring viewers to rescan their local channel lineups in what the industry is calling a “repack” of stations to closer dial positions. When complete, the UHF TV band will shrink from channels 14-51 to 14-36. Channels 38-51 are being reallocated to the wireless industry (channel 37 remains reserved for radio astronomy use only).

Some stations will need to buy a new antenna or transmitter, others may require interim or larger facilities to manage the change. The National Association of Broadcasters complains the FCC is not allocating enough money to cover what it estimates will eventually cost TV station owners $2.139 billion. TV tower rigging crews, who climb antenna towers and perform installation and maintenance services, are booked well in advance and are charging prices consistent with the urgent need to prepare for the biggest TV transition since the switch to digital broadcasting.

Because nobody is certain exactly how much the free TV repack and transition will eventually cost, the FCC intends to partly reimburse commercial stations about 52% of their costs (62% for non-commercial stations) during the first round of funding. Another $750 million is expected to be allocated for the second round of funding to cover the rest.

The agency also intends to scrutinize receipts to make certain stations are not dipping into the fund to help pay for the forthcoming transition to ATSC 3.0 broadcasting, which will eventually make current TV sets and some station equipment functionally obsolete. TV stations can only recoup expenses directly related to the repack. The FCC suspects as repack deadlines near, TV tower rigging crews could raise prices further and take a bigger percentage of the fund than station owners may realize. If costs rise out of proportion to what is now deemed reasonable, some stations may face out-of-pocket expenses the FCC will not reimburse if the fund is exhausted.

The FCC did not account for cell companies stepping in and directly assisting TV stations to vacate their existing channel positions faster than the FCC initially planned. T-Mobile, which won a large number of licenses that cannot be used until certain TV stations make channel changes, is reaching agreements with stations directly, offering incentives to move faster. In New York City, an agreement between FOX and T-Mobile will save the FCC fund almost $80 million. FOX-owned stations WWOR and WNYW will move their transmitters from the Empire State Building to One World Trade Center, allowing them to switch channel positions and make room for T-Mobile more than a year ahead of schedule.

When the repack is complete, viewers watching over-the-air will need to rescan their televisions to find their local stations once again.

A Public Service Announcement from the FCC explains the “rescanning” process to keep or receive new digital over-the-air stations. (1 minute)

Charter Sues Striking Union Over Alleged Acts of Sabotage; Lobbyist Earns from Both Sides

Phillip Dampier October 16, 2017 Charter Spectrum, Public Policy & Gov't 2 Comments

Members of IBEW Local 3 have been on strike for about seven months. (Image: IBEW Local 3)

Charter Communications is suing the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 3 alleging its striking members are responsible for repeated acts of vandalism and sabotage of Charter’s cable service Spectrum in the New York City area.

The lawsuit, filed last week in Manhattan Supreme Court, claims union members have cut or damaged cables and other property at least 125 times since the union went out on strike in March.

“The sabotage was done purely out of maliciousness,” Charter’s attorneys allege in the lawsuit. “The saboteurs clearly knew the optimal locations where they could quickly cut cable lines to multiple customers without being harmed or observed, suggesting they are cable technicians who work for Charter.”

A Charter spokesman said the company filed the suit to get union members to stop damaging its equipment.

Union members suggest Charter brings no hard evidence to the table about who is responsible. Union officials have repeatedly denied involvement and have urged those responsible to stop, noting it risks turning Spectrum customers against the union.

Meanwhile, a powerful New York City lobbying firm appears to be getting rich representing Charter Communications while also representing three of the cable company’s biggest critics in City Hall, including New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio.

The Daily News reports the MirRam Group represents the mayor, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Public Advocate Letitia James. James has been a client since 2013 while Mayor deBlasio hired the company in April to assist him with his re-election campaign. The lobbying firm has collected $150,000 from Charter and its predecessor Time Warner Cable in the last 12 months.

The newspaper reports the terms of the contract require MirRam Group to promote Charter’s business with ‘key public officials’ in city and state government, including monitoring legislative developments that could impact on the cable company in New York. The lobbying firm is also required to “promote Charter’s public policy interests” and is not supposed to “represent other clients on matters adverse to or in conflict with” the cable company’s goals.

Lexington, Ky. Proposes Giving Charter 30 Days to Resolve Problems or Face Fines

Phillip Dampier October 12, 2017 Charter Spectrum, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't 1 Comment

Charter Communications will have 30 days to fix alleged problems affecting Lexington, Ky.’s cable subscribers or the company could face fines of $500 a day for each violation.

The Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council voted to put the resolution on its agenda for tonight’s meeting, and it is expected to pass.

The city is exasperated over Spectrum’s failure to allow customers to speak to supervisors, not allowing customers to return cable equipment by mail, and for charging customers for services they did not order.

“Because of the volume of complaints we have received, we have decided to go forward with this next step,” General Services Commissioner Geoff Reed told the Lexington Herald-Leader.

The complaints began pouring into city offices shortly after Charter Communications’ Spectrum replaced Time Warner Cable.

Because of federal deregulation, local authorities have little say over cable company rates or services and no say at all over internet service. But the city can hold the cable company accountable to its video service franchise agreement. If Charter fails to correct the alleged deficiencies, the county council can order an administrative hearing and fine the company up to $500 a day per violation.

Mission Possible: Ajit Pai’s Stated Goal is to Kill Telecom Regulation

Phillip Dampier October 11, 2017 Public Policy & Gov't 2 Comments

Pai

“We want to eliminate, as much as we can, government regulation of the telecommunications marketplace so as to permit present players to provide new and innovative services to consumers and likewise permit new players to come in and compete,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai told an audience attending a speech at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif.

He was quoting and affirming words first spoken by Reagan era FCC Chairman Mark Fowler. It was a core theme in Pai’s speech, entitled “Morning in Digital America,” and it signaled Pai and his Republican colleagues would do everything possible to inspire and affirm the country’s largest telecom companies’ investments that he felt would only grow with the obliteration of rules and regulations established by his predecessor during the Obama Administration.

Pai cited the wireless industry’s transition to 5G service, quoting the CTIA — the wireless industry’s top lobbying organization, as creating “three million jobs and over $500 billion in additional economic growth over seven years.”

“The most powerful tool for expanding digital opportunity is market-based, light-touch regulation—for this maximizes private investment in high-speed networks,” Pai predicted. “That’s why we’ve sought to break down regulatory barriers to installing wireless and wireline infrastructure. Too often, government at all levels makes it hard for companies to construct next-generation networks. So we’re focused on cutting as much of this red tape as we can.”

Pai also claimed he restored the “collaborative and collegial traditions of the FCC.”

“Under my leadership, about 80% of the major items voted on at our monthly meetings have been approved with bipartisan support and without dissent, compared to less than 50% under my predecessor,” Pai claimed.

All but one of the current commissioners were in place during the second term of the Obama Administration, meaning under Pai’s predecessor, it was Republican commissioners Pai and O’Rielly that dissented the most at the time.

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