PANAMA CITY — Wireless carriers’ poor preparation and coordination lengthened communication outages after Hurricane Michael, a new federal report shows.
The report from the Federal Communications Commission’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau cites three main factors why restoration of wireless service was slow in Bay County after the Oct. 10 storm. Those factors included insufficiently resilient backhaul connectivity, inadequate reciprocal roaming arrangements and lack of coordination between wireless service providers, power crews and municipalities.
The report also makes several suggestions to improve recovery after another storm — recommendations some local officials welcome, while adding that they’ve already been working with wireless carriers so history doesn’t repeat itself.
“As we saw in the immediate aftermath of the storm, communication was one of the most critical infrastructures we needed to have in place — it was not,” said Mark McQueen, city manager for Panama City. “This FCC guidance is exactly what’s needed and is a game-changer for communities in the future.”
Communication was practically nonexistent in the county in the days after the hurricane, with most power poles, cell and radio towers knocked out. Telecommunications company Verizon took the brunt of complaints after the storm, given that it serves an estimated 80 percent of the county. Verizon, which serves many first responders along with residents, didn’t restore much of its system until about a week after the storm hit.
Meanwhile, some AT&T customers had limited service, given that much of that company's fiber in the county was underground as opposed to Verizon, whose fiber was on power lines.
“From a Verizon perspective, we are proud of the way we responded to the situation, and proud of our longstanding track record of reliability following natural disasters, like Hurricanes Sandy, Harvey, Irma and Florence,” Kate Jay, spokeswoman from Verizon, wrote in an email to The News Herald. “With each storm we go through, we learn more and more and we evolve our game plan.”
The report notes that early recovery work actually led to more communications outages. There were numerous cases in which a wireless provider had restored service to customers, only to have that service brought down as third-party crews damaged communications assets while clearing trash or restoring power lines.
“Such lack of coordination among wireless providers, utilities, and debris clearance crews unnecessarily prolonged the time customers lacked service,” the report states.
To improve recoveries from future storms, the report recommends that:
• Wireless providers enter into roaming agreements as part of their pre-storm preparation processes.
• Communications providers and power companies enter into coordination agreements regarding mutual preparation and restoration efforts that can be activated when a storm strikes.
• Wireless providers use diverse backhaul options, such as microwave links and satellite links.
• Communications providers participate in training activities to improve coordination of restoration efforts.
• Wireless providers ensure familiarity with applicable best practices, especially as they relate to cooperation and coordination with local utilities.
“I’ve read the report and I agree with some of the findings in that,” Bay County Sheriff Tommy Ford said.
Ford said losing communication capabilities in the aftermath of the hurricane was frustrating and created a feeling of helplessness. The Sheriff’s Office relied mostly on Verizon for its voice communication and data prior to the storm. The office also uses radio communication equipment, which was knocked out by the hurricane too.
“Verizon was part of that problem, but they’ve realized the issue and they’re working with us,” Ford said. “And we’re talking with other carriers like AT&T as well and have plans to diversify.”
Jay wrote that Verizon had already taken some steps to improve recovery after storms and to better support the Panhandle.
“In the last several months we have been evaluating and implementing new technologies which we used heavily in the storm’s recovery, including satellite as a backhaul for mobile equipment,” Jay wrote. “We have also carefully considered how and where we install fiber, which is critical to all network operations and are working closely with local officials to bury more fiber than we have had previously in the area.”
Jay added that Verizon is investing $25 million to install its latest 5G wireless service in Panama City later this year — one of just 30 U.S. cities to get first dibs on the new technology. First announced in October soon after the storm, the upgrade will provide faster cellphone data service.
“As we said last October, we know our neighbors in the Panhandle have a long road ahead and we will be there every step of the way,” Jay wrote.