Hurricane Maria: Devastating Cell Towers and Wireless Infrastructure Damage in Puerto Rico

Hurricane Maria Devastates Cellular Service in Puerto Rico & U.S. Virgin Islands

Recently on the TowerPoint blog, we discussed how cellular service was affected by Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma. Shortly after those hurricanes passed through Texas and the Southeast U.S., Hurricane Maria swept across the Caribbean and caused disastrous damage in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Unlike Hurricane Harvey where the cellular networks overall withstood the category 4 winds, Hurricane Maria took a devastating toll on the cellular networks in Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands.

According to the FCC’s Disaster Information Reporting System, 88.3% of the cell sites in Puerto Rico were not operating as of Monday, October 2. In the U.S. Virgin Islands, 68.9% of cell sites were not operational. The lack of commercial power is a significant problem in getting these cell sites back up and running. On September 27, Elaine Duke, acting Department of Homeland Secretary, described Puerto Rico’s power grid as “virtually gone.” The Wireless Infrastructure Association (WIA) CEO Jonathan Adelstein expressed, “The structures are sound – the issue is getting power to the facilities and getting access to them.”

AT&T is the major carrier in Puerto Rico with 34% of the market share, followed by T-Mobile with 19% and Sprint with 10%. Wireless carriers are actively trying to repair the wireless networks on the islands by bringing in generators, fuel, personnel, and supplies. However, flooded roads, cut fiber lines, lack of power, and looters stealing fuel from the backup generators have impeded recovery attempts by the carriers to restore service.

In an effort to help people while networks are still down, some carriers are waiving cell phone charges in the affected areas. AT&T and T-Mobile set up a program that allows people in the U.S. to register cell phone numbers of friends and family in Puerto Rico. When the registered phone number eventually connects to a network, they will immediately be notified that family and friends are trying to contact them. As of September 28, over 12,000 people have signed up for the service.

Sprint sent multiple crews and technicians with supplies to assist their local team in Puerto Rico with the repairs. AT&T set up temporary cell sites to provide some service to the affected areas while they get the cellular network back up and running. Stateside, the FCC is trying to assist the repair efforts as well. Ajit Pai, FCC Chairman, proposed a plan that could give carriers access to $96.9 million to repair wireline and wireless communication to Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands.

How can we help?

Unfortunately, after Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on September 20th, millions are still left without power and cellular service. Here is how we can help.