Florida Governor Rick Scott and his Chief Financial Officer, Jimmy Patronis, have been lambasting Verizon for not restoring cellular service as rapidly as its competitors in the wake of the devastation caused by Hurricane Michael across Florida’s Panhandle.
Governor Scott named the company at a press briefing on Oct. 14 and both politicians have been sending tweets calling for quicker repairs, while praising Verizon’s competitors, particularly AT&T.
Praise for AT&T
In an Oct. 14 press release, Governor Scott pointed out a long list of actions cell providers had taken to help restore communications services. These included bringing in cell towers on trucks and on light planes, and donating phones and batteries to emergency service providers.
The press release listed efforts made by Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile equally.
However, at a press conference on the same day, Governor Scott did criticize Verizon specifically, Tampa Bay.com reported.
“There in Bay County, we’re still waiting on Verizon,” Governor Scott said.
“We’ve put a lot of food and water out all across the state,” Scott said. “Well, if you have no internet and you have no cell phone, it’s hard to get the information out. AT&T is working there, but Verizon is not.”
On Oct. 14, Verizon posted, “The storm caused unprecedented damage to our fiber, which is essential for our network— including many of our temporary portable assets—to work.
“Our fiber crews are working around the clock to make repairs, and while they are making good progress, we still have work to do to get the fiber completely repaired.
“Once that fiber is repaired we expect service to come back on throughout Panama City, Panama City Beach and the surrounding areas.”
Verizon had an extensive above-ground and underground fiber network throughout the impacted areas, and this fiber network took a beating. The company said that clean-up efforts in some cases had exacerbated the problem.
Work crews focused clearing roads for emergency vehicles and trucks carrying storm supplies were pulling down broken trees and digging up buried power cables without much concern for the damage this might do to fiber-optic cables, Verizon spokeswoman Karen Schulz told the Wall Street Journal.
Schulz said that cleanup efforts were creating obstacles to its fiber repair efforts. “As soon as we get fiber repaired there’s another cut in it,” Ms. Schulz said. “It’s certainly taking longer than we would want it to.”
Verizon has tried to respond by using mobile cell towers and even an airplane carrying a satellite dish, Schultz said.
The company did it’s best to reaffirmed the public on Oct. 16 that the restoration of cellular service was its highest priority.
To our customers impacted by #HurricaneMichael & the first responders/gov leaders helping their neighbors, know we are working as hard as we can to restore service in Panama City, FL & other areas hit. This is @verizon's #1 priority. See latest update here https://t.co/4Mo84k4BuR
— Hans Vestberg (@HansVestberg_) October 15, 2018
However, the delay left emergency response and police efforts, which depend on cell networks, in the dark. First responders were left with few ways to tell residents about their disaster relief efforts and supply distribution points.
We are on Day 6 with no @verizon service in Bay County. Phones are critical infrastructure for Search and Rescue and First Responder communications. We need the same response from @verizon as we have seen from our electric companies. #HurricaneMichael #fixitnow
— Jimmy Patronis (@JimmyPatronis) October 15, 2018
Widespread Loss of Service
According to a report by the Federal Communications Commission, Florida lost more than 70 percent of its cell service when Hurricane Michael hit on Oct. 11.
Much of those outages could have been caused by a loss of electricity. TampaBay.com reported that 400,000 Floridians were without power following the storm. Downed trees caused most of the damage in most regions.
Gulf Power serves most of the highly impacted communities. Company spokesman Jeff Rogers said, “The Gulf Power system held strong from Pensacola to Fort Walton Beach—a testament to the investments we’ve made to harden our infrastructure. But the hardest hit areas around Panama City may need to be rebuilt from the ground up.”
According to Verizon, it had similar issues in the communities where Michael made landfall, specifically Panama City, Panama City Beach, and surrounding areas.
The FirstNet Advantage
AT&T had been able to send a larger number of mobile cell towers into the affected areas, in part because it received a $6.5 billion federal grant in 2017 to build its FirstNet.
FirstNet, the First Responder Network Authority, was authorized by Congress in 2012 as a nationwide program to make sure that first responders always had communications and connectivity during disasters.
Because of the FirstNet grant, AT&T was able to afford a large number of expensive mobile cell-tower satellite-link trucks, which enable it to restore service in disaster zones more quickly than its competitors.
Even thought the cell service is prioritized for emergency first responders, normal customers can “piggyback” off the system, the Wall Street Journal reported.
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