Infrastructure damage in Puerto Rico resulting from Hurricane Maria last week was unprecedented. Attention has focused primarily on the U.S. territory’s electrical service, which according to initial estimates, is expected to be out of service for months. But the storm’s impact on telecom infrastructure also was unprecedented, as a corporate blog post about the AT&T hurricane response illustrates.

“In many areas, the fiber backhaul is simply gone,” wrote AT&T Executive Vice President of Regulatory & State External Affairs Joan Marsh in the blog post.

According to FCC data released yesterday, 90.3% of cellsites in Puerto Rico were out of service, down just slightly from 91.1% one day earlier. The FCC didn’t provide an estimate of the number of landlines that were out of service but noted that at least 14 switches were out of service and that one company reported that 100% of its customers were out of service due to a lack of commercial power.

Source: FCC

AT&T Hurricane Response
Marsh’s blog post stops short of estimating how quickly AT&T will restore wireless service — the company’s primary offering on the island. Instead, the post illustrates the unique difficulties that will complicate service restoration by comparing Hurricane Maria’s impact in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands with the company’s experiences in restoring service in the continental U.S. after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma hit parts of several states several weeks ago.

“Hurricane Harvey was all about water, and its communications recovery story is all about fiber,” Marsh wrote. AT&T infrastructure in areas impacted by that hurricane was largely fiber based, which simplified recovery efforts because “fiber is indifferent to water – you dry it out and it’s ready to roll.” Perhaps more importantly, AT&T lost service to less than 3% of its cellsites, “although water penetration did cripple some of our wireline facilities,” Marsh noted.

“The story of Hurricane Irma was one of a hardened electric grid and strategic placement of recovery assets,” Marsh continued. Knowing that the storm was coming, AT&T staged more than 2,400 portable generators and used 390,000 gallons of fuel to keep cellsites up during power outages. In general, those power outages ended within a week because the Florida electric grid recovered quickly, she noted.

It’s a very different story in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands – in large part because these are islands.

“Although we were able to pre-stage fuel, we could not pre-stage recovery assets in fear that they would be lost,” Marsh explained. “And getting recovery assets to the islands is a huge challenge given the damage sustained at the airports and the need, particularly in Puerto Rico, to give priority access to life-sustaining supplies, including food, water and fuel.”

Making plans to get satellite/cell trucks to the island has been particularly challenging because air travel would require a very large plane and those are in short supply. Marsh noted, though, that the company has three satellite trucks on a barge due to land next week and three more on the way this morning. She added that the company sent 50 satellite phones for use by the Puerto Rican government in areas where there is no cell service.

Importantly, Puerto Rico lost almost all of its wired infrastructure in the hurricane – and although AT&T service on the island is wireless, it relies on that infrastructure for backhaul.

Managing expectations at times like these can be critical for businesses and Marsh’s blog post goes a long way toward doing that.

“Maria created restoration challenges unlike those we’ve seen in other storms and, in the aftermath, there will be lessons for all of us to learn on restoration and recovery,” she concluded.

Image courtesy of flickr user Kabsik Park.