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Irma Cell-Phone Failures: Eight Percent of Towers Still Down and the County Is in the Dark

Irma Cell-Phone Failures: Eight Percent of Towers Still Down and the County Is in the Dark
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Among the many ways Irma blew South Florida’s cover as being unprepared for a major hurricane is the infuriatingly slow return of cell and internet service, a situation that has resulted in tens of thousands of people being unable to reach family, friends, and loved ones, let alone go online, for days.

Miami-Dade County is aware of the problem. “I think carriers were ready for a hurricane,” the county's Chief Information Officer, Angel Petisco, says. “I’m not quite sure if they were ready for this type of event.”

Prior to the storm, carriers had optimistically told the Miami Herald they were ready, noting, for instance, that “switching centers have been hardened and that permanent and backup generators will kick on when power goes out.”

A week later, cell carriers aren't saying exactly how many customers are without service or when they’ll get it back. You have to go to the Federal Communications Commission to figure out where service is still down, though no carriers are listed. As of Sunday, the last report available, 119 cell-phone towers (8 percent) were still not functioning in Miami-Dade, 57 (6 percent) were down in Broward, and 47 (22 percent) were out in Collier County. In the Keys, 12 percent were still not working.

Commissioners have been kept in the dark too. “All we see is that the cell coverage is bad, the cell coverage is still bad, now it’s temporarily better, and now it got bad again,” Petisco says. “The lack of communication to the community is the biggest failure.”

For all of its faults, Florida Power & Light at least provides regular and detailed updates about its progress. “So at least the community is aware of the progress being made and there’s a sense of hope,” he says.

Petisco acknowledges that some problems are out of the carriers’ hands — mainly, that many of the outages have been linked to the lack of power. But as the Herald noted, there were supposed to be backup generators, and evidently some of them eventually ran out of fuel, Petisco says.

Sprint acknowledged as much in one of its Irma status updates: "Where conditions allow, [crews] are working to deploy and refuel generators to get any impacted sites back online as quickly and safely as possible."

That was one of the more detailed updates a carrier provided. AT&T gave a single update related to service, choosing instead to lean on a series of uplifting PR videos about how hard its crews were working. Verizon was even stingier, putting up a single web page saying it would waive data and text overages for a week, something other carriers announced as well.

But as Petisco points out, without being able to connect to the internet, customers had no way of knowing that was even happening.

Going forward, he would like the carriers to make regular progress updates as with FPL.

“The ask we made is, ‘I need you guys to report through news media your progress so people are aware,’” Petisco says. “You need to do that not as a single briefing but in a consistent way.”

He adds that each carrier will also be required to have a liaison who sits on the county’s emergency operations team. “I’m sure the carriers have Cinderella stories about how they helped, but the major lesson learned is ‘You guys didn’t do enough to communicate your progress with the community.”

Sprint says it has ceased collections until September 22. AT&T's live update page hasn't changed recently. And T-Mobile is offering some free calling and data.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Angel Petisco as Angel Gonzalez, an aide to Miami-Dade Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava. It also stated that he was speaking on behalf of Levine Cava, when he was actually responding for the county as a whole.

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