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Hurricane threat has wireless carriers ready drones to restore service
by By Rob Wile, The Miami Herald - Miami Herald - Thursday, August 29, 2019
After Hurricane Irma in 2017, countless South Floridians voiced frustration with the slow return of local Internet and cellular phone service.
Now, as Hurricane Dorian gathers strength in the Atlantic, carriers say they’re better prepared should another disaster strike — with at least one carrier boasting boasting emergency service from the sky in the form of drones.
Private carriers did not release data after Irma showing how many South Florida customers lost cellphone or Internet service. At least one computer services manager for condominiums and other businesses said 80 percent of his 240 customers had lost service. Florida Power & Light estimated up to two million South Floridians lost power at some point following the 2017 storm.
The services manager, Reginald Andre of Miami Gardens-based ARK Solvers, now says he feels more confident about the ability of cable and Internet providers to respond should service go down — something he says is almost inevitable.
Andre said most carriers already send texts to customers notifying them of new outages. In some cases, they can also provide estimates of when service will be restored.
He also said more carriers have switched to more reliable fiber-optic networks, as opposed to digital subscriber line, or DSL, Internet, which uses easily damaged copper wiring.
“A lot has changed since the last time,” Andre said.
Of course, in order to send a text message, cell service must also be up and running. To respond to outages, AT&T has begun staging cell-on-wheels trucks, or COWs, that can be moved in to place to cover affected areas. An AT&T spokesman said as many as 30 such vehicles can be deployed according to Dorian’s path and aftermath.
COWs also refers to cell-on-wings—in other words, drones. AT&T has two in its fleet that it can fly into place to provide coverage to emergency crews.
The company, which is the official service provider to Miami-Dade government, cited other improvements.
“Since Hurricane Irma, we have improved the resiliency of our network throughout Florida by moving fiber underground, and increasing the number of fixed generators and installing additional backup infrastructure at cell sites,” the company said in a statement.
In a statement, Verizon said it too had made a “significant investment” in a fleet of new satellite-equipped portable cell sites. A T-Mobile representative did not immediately respond for comment; on its website, it said it now had “a range of recovery equipment and supplies on hand including generators, network recovery equipment and community response trucks, should they be needed in the aftermath of the storm.”
A representative for Comcast did not immediately respond for comment.
Carriers say customers can text 611, even if service has been knocked out, to reach their provider.
hatever preparation may be in place for Dorian, a recent government report adds some uncertainty to the picture. In May, the Federal Communications Commission published a post-mortem on carriers’ response to Hurricane Matthew, which hammered Florida’s panhandle. The commission concluded carriers’ responses were inadequate, noting that it took Verizon, which served much of the area, a full week to fully restore service.
The report also noted lack of coordination between carriers, power companies, and debris removal teams.
Here, the county says it has stepped up: After Irma, it invited major carriers to have leadership roles overseeing the county Emergency Operations Center. AT&T and T-Mobile have joined.
In a statement to the Miami Herald, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said: “We’ve been through a few big storms in recent years, and judging from that experience, the wireless network has been pretty robust.”