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What Hurricanes Harvey and Irma Tell Us about Wireless Carrier Preparedness

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Disclaimer: This blog is in no way meant to diminish the concern everyone at BatteryDAQ has for every living creature in the paths of these natural disasters.  We would also like to note that there exist many other ways to disrupt the power grid, both naturally and man-initiated. It is our hope and deepest desire that the effective protections against these type of events continues to improve.

If Shakespeare had penned “A hurricane by any other name is still a hurricane.”, he would have been wrong. They may all meet certain criteria that place them in the category, but the devastation they leave behind can differ, depending on their particular destructive force.

After 12 years without a major hurricane landing on the U.S. mainland, 2 significant storms have severely damaged Houston and nearly the entire state of Florida in recent weeks.  However, when we examine the impact they had on cell tower outages, they tell very different stories.How so? Picture yourself in a telecommunications class room.  The professor is at the front of the room and asks the straightforward question to the very intelligent students: “What was the cause for cell tower outages during Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma?”  Hands shoot skyward and the first student called on answers “Flooding. Severe flooding. Harvey resulted in flooding like has never been seen before.  5 feet of rain.”  The professor immediately responds, “Wrong.” and chooses the next eager student.

“Wind. Heavy winds.  Irma landed with winds in excess of 140 miles per hour, and traveled the whole length of Florida.”  The professor again replies quickly, “Wrong.”

After a few long seconds of stumped silence, the professor decides to tell the answer.  Just then Johnny, in the back of the class, states “The power went out.”  “Bingo!”, exclaims the professor. Johnny got an A.

Although Hurricane Harvey did produce an incredible amount of rain and unbelievable levels of flooding, the power in Houston stayed on, for the most part.  As a result, very few cell towers went down, because the grid stayed up. However, Irma caused utility power to go off across huge areas of the state, resulting in the loss of power to approximately 7 million.

Large percentages of wireless services went away during Hurricane Irma

What did that do to the cell tower performance and wireless service?  Here are some quotes from media articles:

“Here’s what the latest FCC report says: 
▪ Eighty-two percent of cell sites in the Keys and other parts of Irma-ravaged Monroe County are not working, according to an FCC report issued Wednesday. 
▪ In Miami-Dade and Broward counties, about 30 percent of all sites remain non-functioning — a decrease from 40 percent on Tuesday, the report said. 
▪ After the Keys, Southwest Florida is experiencing the most outages.
▪ Statewide, 18 percent are without service, down from 24.6 percent Tuesday” – Miami Herald  9/11/2017

“According to the latest Federal Communications Commission’s status report released Wednesday, 64 percent of the county’s cell sites are out. Only Monroe and Hendry Counties have a higher outage percentage at 82 and 76 percent, respectively.” – Naples Daily News 9/12/2017

“Cellular service has gradually been restored since Hurricane Irma caused outages across the region. The agency placed that number at 76 percent on Monday, the morning after the storm.” – Orlando Sentinel 9/12/2017

“As electricity stopped flowing, cell towers started dropping off of the network, slowing communications across the state.” – Sun Sentinel September 15, 2017

Statewide, 3,973 of 14,502 cell towers — 27 percent — were down at the exact time consumers were relying on them most.” – Sun Sentinel  September 15, 2017

Now, you may think the general public’s response to all this media coverage may well be, “So, what do you expect?!  A massive hurricane went through the state of Florida! Of course, they are going to have outages.  But, they worked hard to get them back up and are spending huge amounts of time and money making trip, after trip, after trip, out to the expensive generators to keep them filled with fuel.”

They may even add,  “I mean the Miami Herald even wrote that “Cellphone towers and antennae systems are built to withstand significant wind and flood risks, and many use backup generators that kick on when the power goes out. The carriers also have mobile cellular units, called COWs (Cell on Wheels) and COLTs (cell on light trucks), they can use in areas while repair work is underway.” So, cut them a break!  They are even offering free texting and other stuff. That’s another expense, right out of their pocket.  That’s their dime.”

Again, you may think that is what the public’s opinion would be, but as the professor would say…”Wrong.”

Here is what a member of the general public had to say: ““We are in the dark and we are a society that depends on the internet,” Sanchez said on Wednesday.  Hundreds — perhaps thousands — of South Floridians seem to agree, according to social media and calls and emails to the Miami Herald. Outages on Comcast Xfinity, AT&T U-verse and Atlantic Broadband are widespread. On top of that, customers of cellular carriers Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile are also experiencing service disruptions. Sens. Rubio and Nelson sent a letter to FEMA Tuesday requesting they coordinate with relevant federal, state and local officials to help communications providers restore Florida’s networks.” – Miami Herald 9/13/2017

The quoted customer above is Mario Sanchez and he has an online sales company. His livelihood depends on up-time.  But, let’s expand our view on this topic.  It is a certainty that almost all of our direct communication with one another depends on connectivity.  It is also certain that we will become increasingly more reliant on up-time.  In life or death situations, it is becoming imperative that cell towers and wireless service stay up!  We are addicted to wireless technology, and we literally cannot live without it.

Remember what cellphones functionality was 10 years ago? Tablets? Streaming? Some of these examples weren’t even around, and if they were, they are now archaic.  Face it, we are hooked, even if we don’t want to be. However, with all of our tethered dependence on wireless service, United States Senators writing letters to FEMA on the general public’s behalf is something the carriers can not want.  FEMA funds, are great, but carriers don’t want the government nosing around looking for the causes of sub-par performance.  The number of failed sites are already being reported daily to the FCC.

So, how did the large carriers perform during the utility outage? Here are the statistics:

“Five Florida counties were particularly hard hit, with half or more of their wireless towers out of service, according to an FCC report issued Tuesday. Miami-Dade County had about 42 percent of towers out. Landline service was knocked out to 7.2 million customers, fewer than the 7.6 million Monday.
•    AT&T Inc., which provides service in South Georgia, Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, says networks have been disrupted by power outages and storm damage. Chief Executive Officer Randall Stephenson said Tuesday that 25 percent of the company’s cell sites are down in the affected areas, due to commercial power outages.
•    Verizon has 10% of its cell sites are out of service in Florida and 3% down in Georgia, said spokeswoman Karen Schulz. Both Verizon and AT&T are using backup generator power to keep antennas working in areas where commercial power is down.
•    About 30% of Sprint’s cell sites in the region affected by Irma are out of service Tuesday due primarily to power outages, said spokeswoman Lisa Belot. Sprint customers in Florida, South Carolina, Georgia, North Carolina, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are experiencing service problems in the aftermath of Irma.
•    T-Mobile has about 20% of its cell sites down in Florida, said Stacey DiNuzzo, a spokeswoman. There are still areas where workers haven’t been able to get because of flooding and blocked roads, she said. “It’s going to be a long recovery unfortunately.”” – Bloomberg September 12, 2017

Where am I going with this?  These numbers aren’t great, but they aren’t that bad, right?  “Wrong.”

Here is my point. If you take only one thing from this entire blog, take this point with you.  In a time when society critically relies on wireless technology, carriers’ backup power reliability is nowhere near where it must be. But, they have an affordable solution to greatly improve it.

If cell sites took days to significantly improve to “not that bad” failure percentages, where did they start, and WHY did they drop so fast?  I submit that if the carriers were properly prepared for power outages, the vast majority of sites would have continued to work when the lights went out, and perhaps waned over time, while the carrier techs struggled to get onsite to refuel the generators.

It means that the cell site structures themselves held up well in the hurricane because they came back online when the backup power began to work.  However, the evidence suggests the first line of backup power…battery strings, either did not work well, or failed outright, completely severing all means of communication.

The major problem with the towers going offline most likely had nothing to do with damage sustained during the hurricane, either due to flooding or high winds.  Rather, the outages occurred because the power went off and the battery strings failed.

As Hurricane Harvey told us, even with severe flooding, if the grid stays up, so do the cell sites.  In contrast, Hurricane Irma also told us that once the utility power goes dark, cell sites struggle to remain up.

Why do we know this?  A carrier spokesperson told us: “Physical damage to cell towers doesn’t appear to be an issue. Towers are meant to withstand high winds. It’s really rare to see a tower topple over,” said Roni Singleton, a Sprint spokeswoman for Florida.

But because of the power outages, the lack of coverage right now is worse in South Florida, and — bizarrely — much worse than Houston recently experienced despite that city’s massive flooding from Hurricane Harvey.”  – Palm Beach Post September 12, 2017

Also, from the same article: “Cell towers are required to have batteries that provide eight to 12 hours of power for first responders, the T-Mobile spokeswoman said. After that, they rely on generators for power. But fallen trees and debris have made it difficult to refuel some of the generators, she said.” – Palm Beach Post, September 12, 2017

OK.  So, what can be done about it?  Plenty. There is no reason every carrier shouldn’t be prepared and confident that their backup battery power will work when needed, as needed. Just as wireless technology continues to improve and becomes more and more indispensable to how we function in society, so too does continuous state-of-health monitoring for remote cell sites.

To highlight the point, let’s switch from the classroom example to a telecom carrier conference room.

The room is full of very intelligent peers. The Operations Director asks the straightforward question, “What could we have done better during Harvey and Irma, and how can we do better during future events?”

The first engineer answers “Nothing.  It’s been twelve years since hurricanes like those hit the U.S.  Even when they did, we recovered quickly.  Sure it was expensive, but when you average the cost out over 12 years, it isn’t too bad.”  The Ops Director immediately answers “Wrong.”, and recognizes the next engineer.

“On the front end, we could have prioritized the most important sites and left the lesser sites until the grid was restored. For the future, we can increase the number of manual battery measurements and generator maintenance visits.  We make them mandatory and make every technician go through an internal certification program that they must pass within a certain time frame, or risk their bonuses, if not there job.”.

The Ops Director again replies “Wrong.”

After a prolonged silence, the Ops Director decides to share the answer. Just then Johnny, in the back of the conference room, states “There’s a company called BatteryDAQ that designs continuous battery monitoring solutions for remote cell sites.  BatteryDAQ monitors are compact, well made, easy to install, and affordable.  Their soft-”

” Affordable? How affordable?” questions the first engineer.

“The case can be made that for our most common battery configuration, the system will cost a fraction of the battery strings, have and ROI of 18 months, and last for over 10 years.”, explained Johnny.

“How are we supposed to handle all of that data from tens of thousands of sites?”, interjected the second engineer.

Johnny continued. “BatteryDAQ software can easily manage from 1 to 1 million sites, either inside our firewall, or on a cloud-based server.  We can scale up as we implement, eventually seeing all of our sites on a color-coded state-of-health display using their Geo-Map reporting functionality.  From there, we can rank our core sites, and prioritize the sites in most need of help using interactive criteria.  We can also make well informed budgeting decisions using available dollars, or health rankings.”

“Bingo!”, exclaims the Ops Director. Johnny got a promotion.

Sentry line of compact, affordable monitorsGeo-Map Reporting

BatteryDAQ is built around the vision of providing field-proven technology for remote sites while overcoming budgetary concerns.  BatteryDAQ matches cutting edge hardware with actionable data on a 24/7 basis.  It too important for cell sites stay up, when the grid goes down. It is really that simple…and necessary.

Contact us and let’s talk about your applications. 1-800-455-8970