The wireless industry is going about the slow, painstaking effort of putting back together the communications landscape amid the destruction left by Hurricane Michael.
Progress has been made, with the percentage of cell sites out of service dropping from 18.8 percent to 5.2 percent, according to the FCC’s Disaster Information Reporting System (DIRS), which covers Georgia, Alabama and Florida, However, in the affected Florida region, 355 cell sites remain out of service, or 14.4 percent. One county in Florida reports more than 64 percent of its cell sites out of service.
Cellular companies and a power company asked Tilson Technologies to respond to tower site outages close to where Hurricane Michael came ashore. Soon after, three tower tech crews were dispatched from the Tilson Technologies office at Spanish Fort, Alabama. They drove 168 miles arriving Saturday, Oct. 13, at the Panama City Beach area three days after Hurricane Michael made landfall near Mexico Beach, Florida, as a major Category 4 storm with 155 mph winds.
Joshua Broder, CEO, Tilson Technologies, “The first thing that struck us was that we could not effectively respond for 48 hours because they had to clear the roads. Once we go to the cell sites, we were struck by the total devastation. Steve Campbell, southeast market manager, Tilson, and a veteran, said this is worst devastation he has ever seen.”
However, Tilson crews found that many cell towers were still standing amid the rubble of the Florida coast. “A big shout out goes to the standards bodies and the tower companies that built structures able to withstand the terrible wind that knocked down all the other structures,” Broder said.
Tilson did some tower evaluations for the towercos to ensure that the cell towers were structurally sound and safe to climb, and then it began restoration of antennas, lines, cellular RAN and microwave backhaul.
“The cellular carriers, despite all the devastation and logistical difficulties, responded pretty quickly and we were able to have some cellular coverage to coordinate our activities and we supplemented that with satellite phones,” Broder said.
Distribution power was devastated in the hardest hit areas, affecting cell coverage. Further complicating the job of bring back service was the difficulty of getting fuel to the towers for the backup generators. There have also issues getting manpower in the area. 3,000 power crews from around the nation responded to restore power to an estimated 200,000 people, according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.
“The response from Gulf Power has been very strong,” Broder said. “Convoys of line crews have been getting right to the hard work of power distribution restoration.”
Carriers React with Emergency Deployments
AT&T deployed network assets at the guidance of public safety. FirstNet-dedicated satellite cells on trucks (SatCOLTs) boosted connectivity for FirstNet subscribers in hard-hit areas like Panama City and Tallahassee, Florida; and Seminole County, and Colquitt, Georgia, among other areas. These deployments are supporting national guardsmen, airmen, state patrol, trauma care, police, fire and rescue teams from as far as Oregon.
T-Mobile is supplying portable generators, Cells On Wheels (COWs), Cells on Light Trucks (CoLTS), fuel trucks and other vehicles are on site in affected areas. It also has support trucks providing disaster relief in the Panhandle area to help customers get connected, charge devices and get other supplies as needed. Additional trucks are securing its network in other markets as well.
T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray, tweeted, “Continued progress has been made on network recovery in most areas though some of the hardest hit locations will take longer.”
Verizon continues to repair damaged fiber in Florida and Georgia, which has affected cell service. Four more cell sites have been brought on air today, including a site in Mexico Beach providing coverage for residents who remained and first responders in that community. Two additional sites are up east of Panama City and another tower is also back on air using repaired fiber. Additionally, the carrier has deployed a manned aerial vehicle carried a flying cell site over Mexico Beach. A total of 14 portable cell sites have been deployed to serve first responders and utility crews.
Ronan Dunne is executive vice president and group president of Verizon Wireless, said in a statement, “Verizon is 100 percent focused on repairing our network in the Florida Panhandle. We are making progress every hour, and we expect that trend to continue at a rapid pace. We won’t rest until service is completely restored.”