Hurricane Harvey: How the wi-fi carriers fared

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When Hurricane Harvey lashed out at Texas and Louisiana final week, the wi-fi networks stood their floor.

Mobile service held up higher throughout Harvey than in previous storms, which is stunning given the scope and dimension of the catastrophe. Harvey devastated lots of of miles of shoreline from Corpus Christi, Texas, to Lake Charles, Louisiana. The flooding covers an space that is roughly the scale of Lake Michigan and is dwelling to greater than four.5 million folks. Every week after the storm first made landfall in Texas, waters are receding, however some roads are nonetheless impassable.  

Not each space’s cell protection fared properly. Within the 4 counties alongside the Texas Gulf Coast the place the hurricane first made landfall, there have been vital outages, leaving tens of hundreds of individuals with out telephone service. Final weekend within the quick aftermath of the hurricane, Arsanas County in Texas reported almost 95 % of its cell towers had been out of fee, in accordance with the Federal Communications Fee.  

A Houston resident checks his telephone as flood waters rise close to his door. 

Brian Davidson/Getty Pictures

However throughout the whole affected space, cell networks did comparatively properly, thanks partly to the teachings the carriers have realized from coping with previous disasters. It is more and more crucial that cell service works throughout occasions of catastrophe; fewer folks have landlines, they usually depend on a smartphone for a lot of issues past a easy telephone name. When catastrophe strikes, you do not wish to be caught listening to a busy sign.

Hurricane Katrina knocked out greater than 1,000 mobile websites when it hit New Orleans in 2005, in accordance with the FCC. When Superstorm Sandy hit the japanese US in 2012, roughly 1 / 4 of the wi-fi networks within the affected space had been down.

In contrast, simply four % of the 7,804 cell websites in Harvey’s path skilled outages in the course of the storm, in accordance with the FCC. That is lower than 400 cell towers.

“For a catastrophe of this scope, to solely have four % of cell websites go down is actually superb in some methods,” stated Jamie Barnett, a companion at regulation agency Venable and a former chief of the FCC’s Public Security and Homeland Safety Bureau.

Nonetheless, some critics say it is too early to pat the carriers on the again.

“We have to discover out what occurred there; folks’s lives rely on it,” Regina Costa stated of the affected cell towers. Costa is chair of the telecommunications committee of the Nationwide Affiliation of State Utility Advocates, a company that represents client pursuits on public utility issues.

What went proper

Whereas the 4 counties the place Harvey made landfall took the brunt of the devastation from a mobile protection perspective, wi-fi carriers have labored shortly to revive service. By Wednesday, carriers had reduce the variety of downed cell towers by half.

Specialists like Barnett say it appears wi-fi carriers realized some classes from earlier disasters and ready for the hurricane. As an illustration, AT&T and Verizon made positive to high off gas in backup turbines at cell websites, in accordance with the businesses. They staged refueling vans in predetermined websites close to the affected space to make sure they may get out after the storm handed to refuel these turbines in case business energy was misplaced. This was a serious difficulty in earlier storms, like Katrina, the place cell websites that had backup energy ran out of gas.

All the foremost carriers readied transportable cell towers known as COWS (cell websites on wheels) that could possibly be deployed in areas the place everlasting cell towers sustained injury. And in circumstances when the fiber traces connecting the cell towers to the provider’s wired community had been broken, Verizon stated it has been in a position to arrange short-term microwave hyperlinks to finish the connection over the air.


AT&T and Verizon used drones to survey the injury to cell towers following Hurricane Harvey. 


The carriers are additionally taking measures to get better extra shortly from the storm. AT&T and Verizon have every deployed drones to fly over the realm to evaluate injury to cell towers. Utilizing drones is just not solely safer and quicker than sending a tower climbing crew, but it surely additionally permits the carriers to entry websites which are inaccessible as a consequence of flooding, stated Karen Schulz, a Verizon spokeswoman.

When the drones do the inspections, they’re searching for issues like cracked antennae, frayed coax cable or different points which may be inflicting an issue now or could end in service interruptions within the coming days.  

Carriers have additionally made elementary adjustments to their networks which will make the networks extra resilient. One instance is small cell know-how that reduces the scale of the cell websites. That makes networks extra resilient as a result of visitors could be handed off extra simply to websites that have not been broken.

One other key lesson was the necessity for wi-fi carriers to work collectively and share infrastructure to make sure all wi-fi prospects had entry to service no matter provider. That is useful if one provider’s tools goes down.

In December 2016, the FCC adopted a Cell Wi-fi Resiliency Order in response to Superstorm Sandy. It units up a protocol for carriers to broaden roaming throughout disasters and fosters mutual assist amongst wi-fi carriers throughout emergencies. All the foremost wi-fi carriers voluntarily signed on to the settlement.

“All of this appears to be serving to,” Barnett stated.

It is all about energy

However is it sufficient? Client advocate Costa says no.

There have been, in any case, the outages the place Harvey made landfall. Costa says the FCC must take a detailed have a look at which carriers had been concerned within the outages and work out the basis trigger.

One space that was problematic in previous disasters and has probably performed a job within the outages from Harvey has to do with a scarcity of energy at cell towers. When the business energy grid goes down, as typically occurs throughout these disasters, communications are reduce off except there is a backup.

Wi-fi carriers say many cell websites have turbines that kick into motion when business energy is misplaced, however there is no regulatory requirement that mandates how a lot of that infrastructure should have backups. There’s additionally no requirement that this infrastructure be maintained. Firms do not even must open up to the FCC or the general public how a lot of their infrastructure has backups, not to mention particulars on which towers have turbines.

“We won’t merely take the phrase of the wi-fi carriers at face worth that they had been adequately ready,” Costa stated. “We should confirm.”

FCC chairman Ajit Pai plans to go to the Texas and Louisiana coast on Sept. 5. In an announcement issued Wednesday, he stated the company would “do every part it might to assist restore communications providers,” and to “be sure that these affected can get again on their ft as shortly as attainable.”

Costa stated a full assessment is required to find out why websites failed.

“We realized from Katrina and Sandy, and we have to be taught from Harvey,” she stated. “Did backup energy fail and trigger these outages? Or did it fail due to storm injury to the tools?”

It is not only for storms. The infrastructure’s reliance on business energy is a legal responsibility throughout different pure disasters, and even cyberattacks, she stated.

“Not all elements of the infrastructure are created equal,” Costa stated. “Carriers decide and select the place to place these backups. I do not assume you possibly can conclude that every part is hunky-dory till the carriers determine what occurred and why.”

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