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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.

Puerto Ricans Giving Up on U.S. Cell Phone Providers; Mexico’s Claro Has Best Coverage

U.S. cell phone providers are facing increasing criticism they are dragging their feet on restoring cell service in Puerto Rico while Mexican-owned Claro has now successfully restored service in 28 of the territory’s 78 municipalities.

Claro Puerto Rico, owned by Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim’s America Movil, has dramatically outpaced AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint in getting their damaged cell phone facilities back up and running. Claro is Puerto Rico’s second most popular cell company behind AT&T.

“Claro is the only one with service here,” Francisco Portales, 47, a customer of privately held Puerto Rico-based network provider Open Mobile told a Reuters reporter while waiting outside the Claro store in Fajardo hoping to buy a phone.

Looking for a signal.

The FCC’s latest update on Tuesday reported about 88% of Puerto Rico is still without cell service, but the agency does not break down network repairs by carrier, and American providers have declared their specific restoration plans to be confidential.

While AT&T complained the lack of commercial power remained its biggest problem, Claro said it had pre-positioned generators, diesel fuel, battery backups, and vehicles 72 hours before the hurricane hit, which appears to have made all the difference in restoring service.

Sprint said late last week its towers were still standing and “largely intact” although it gave no specific information on when service might be restored. T-Mobile was more frank, reporting “it’s going to be a long road to recovery.”

Claro is not taking advantage of its position as the island’s most reliable post-hurricane carrier, allowing customers of other providers to roam on its network where a signal is available. That may be all the good publicity Claro needs to win over new customers after the hurricane damage is repaired.

Claro’s repair trucks.

Mercedes Saldana, a 54-year-old school cafeteria worker and Sprint customer is just one of many now searching shops for a Claro prepaid phone.

“I don’t have any service, none,” she said. “We don’t know when Sprint’s going to be connected again.”

Customers unwilling to switch carriers and won’t roam may have long travel times ahead of them to find a signal. Luis Pacheco, 64, was planning to drive with his wife to Canovanas — 30 to 40 minutes west — in hopes of finding a cell signal to text his daughter in California. That is the nearest community where AT&T has a signal at the moment.

Before the storm, AT&T dominated Puerto Rico with a 34% market share, followed by Claro Puerto Rico with a 26% share. T-Mobile was third with 19%, Open Mobile has 11% and Sprint 10%. Verizon Wireless has no network facilities in Puerto Rico, but travelers with Verizon phones are granted roaming access on Claro’s network.

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