Backhaul problems, disjointed recovery efforts key causes of ‘unacceptable’ extended wireless outages after Hurricane Michael, FCC report says
Many wireless customers in the Florida Panhandle ‘unnecessarily’ lacked communications for days in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael last fall, because some carriers lacked resilient backhaul and failed to coordinate restoration efforts with utilities, clean-up crews and other carriers, according to an FCC report released yesterday.
“Three key factors—insufficiently resilient backhaul connectivity, inadequate reciprocal roaming arrangements, and lack of coordination between wireless service providers, power crews, and municipalities—were the predominant causes of the unacceptable lack of service,” according to the report prepared by the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau.
“The Bureau further concludes that a lack of coordination and cooperation among wireless providers themselves (exacerbated by inadequate roaming arrangements) inhibited their ability to increase service availability via roaming.”
Hurricane Michael made landfall in the Florida Panhandle last Oct. 10, causing more than $25 billion in estimated and at least 57 known deaths, according to the FCC report. The powerful hurricane significantly damaged communications networks in the area—most notably, in Bay and Gulf Counties—but the effectiveness of wireless carriers’ restorations efforts varied significantly.
“The poor level of service several days after landfall by some wireless providers cannot simply be attributed to unforeseeable circumstances specific to those providers,” the report states.
Power outages caused some cell sites to fail, but pre-positioned assets, backup-power alternatives like generators and restoration of the electrical grid resulted in most power-oriented failures being addressed within 48 hours of the hurricane’s landfall, according to the report.
In contrast, cell-site outages caused by backhaul problems proved to be much more challenging, resulting in an extended loss of communications for some carriers. One of the most frustrating aspects of the restoration efforts—cited numerous times in the FCC report—was that the recovery work from one response entity often undermined the repairs made by telecommunications companies in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael.
“The Bureau learned of 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 and utility poles,” the report states. “Such lack of coordination among wireless providers, utilities, and debris clearance crews unnecessarily prolonged the time customers lacked service.
“Uniti Fiber (Uniti) provides backhaul services to Verizon Wireless in Bay and Gulf Counties. Uniti indicates it experienced at least 33 separate fiber cuts during the recovery effort. These fiber cuts included damage to sections that already had been repaired. Commenters attributed fiber cuts to debris-removal crews, power-company restorations, and returning homeowners clearing their property.”
With this in mind, the FCC report recommends that carriers utilize various backhaul technologies—for instance, microwave and satellite links, as well as fiber—to improve the resiliency of their networks. In addition, carriers should take steps to improve coordination of restoration efforts with utilities and government entities, according to the report.
Exacerbating these problems was the fact that some wireless operators did not comport with the Wireless Resiliency Cooperative Framework that several nationwide carriers voluntarily committed to in 2016, according to the report. Under this framework, carriers are supposed to forge emergency roaming agreements with each other for such occasions.
Several carriers submitted comments supporting the Wireless Resiliency Cooperative Framework, describing it as an effective tool that helped the restoration efforts after Hurricane Michael. But the report states that “the effusive praise given by Framework signatories that commented in this docket simply does not ring true, in light of the lengthy wireless outages in Bay and Gulf Counties.
“Clearly there was a breakdown in restoration efforts, in that some wireless providers fared as well as one might expect given the challenges that Hurricane Michael presented, while others did not. Specifically, at least some wireless providers did not take advantage of the types of disaster-related roaming agreement envisioned in the Framework, allowing their customers to remain in the dark rather than roam on a competitor’s network.”
These carrier decisions had a significant impact on a large number of customers, according to the FCC report.
“At least tens of thousands wireless customers had to wait days, unnecessarily, for their mobile phone service to be restored while their provider held off entering into roaming arrangements,” the report states.