Operators blasted for ‘completely unacceptable’ response to Hurricane Michael

Hurricane Michael hit Florida on Oct. 10. (AT&T)

The chairman of the FCC said wireless operators’ response to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Michael has been “completely unacceptable.” He also called on carriers to waive service charges for those affected in Florida.

In the agency’s most recent report on damage from the hurricane—a Category 4 storm that landed Oct. 10—the FCC said that on Oct. 16, 4.4% of cell sites were out of service in the affected area, down from 5.2% the previous day. “There is one county in Florida with more than 50% of the cell sites out of service (Bay),” the FCC said.

Hours after FCC Chairman Ajit Pai issued his relatively scathing assessment of the situation, Verizon’s wireless chief released his own response, promising in part to provide three free months of service to affected customers. “Our network impacted by #HurricaneMichael continues to improve, and we will not stop until 100% of our service is restored. We recognize how essential our service is & are giving 3 months free service to those impacted by the storm,” Verizon’s Ronan Dunne said on Twitter, pointing to a Verizon website with updated information on the carrier’s recovery efforts. He also said that Verizon would continue to deploy portable cells to support the “critical effort of first responders and other mission critical organizations.”

As noted by Ars Technica, Verizon’s fiber network suffered “unprecedented” damage in the region.

AT&T, for its part, issued a statement on its website that said “overall our networks have performed well during Hurricane Michael and we are nearly fully restored in most affected areas. We continue to move quickly to keep our customers, FirstNet subscribers and public safety agencies connected as they work to keep our communities safe. Our teams continue to work around the clock to repair and restore service, and address the remaining parts of our network that have been affected by the storm.”

The carrier added that it has deployed 32 Cell on Wheels and Cell on Light Trucks, seven emergency comms vehicles and one “Hazmat and Mobile Command Center.”

AT&T also said that it is “extending credits and waiving overage charges to provide unlimited talk, text and data for AT&T Wireless and AT&T Prepaid in some of the hardest hit areas” from Oct. 10 to Oct. 21 in select Florida counties.

As for T-Mobile, the operator said its services had been almost completely restored, and that it is offering “free calling/texting/data for active postpaid and prepaid customers who are not already on an unlimited plan.”

Finally, Sprint said that, from Oct. 10 to Oct. 18, the operator would waive call, text and data overage fees, and that it continued to work to restore services.

Those pledges came after Pai said on Oct. 16 that “even though efforts to restore communications services have been going well in most of the areas affected by Hurricane Michael, the slow progress in restoring wireless service in areas close to where the hurricane made landfall is completely unacceptable. While the FCC has been in regular contact with companies serving the affected areas, I’m concerned that their actions on the ground aren’t matching the urgency that we have conveyed during those conversations. I am therefore joining Governor Scott in calling on wireless carriers to waive the bills of Floridians in these affected areas for the month of October and to allow them to change carriers without penalty.”

Pai also said that carriers need to immediately disclose publicly how they will quickly restore service, and that the FCC’s Public Safety & Homeland Security Bureau will investigate the situation.

The difficulties in restoring service were highlighted by at least one tower company: Joshua Broder, CEO of Tilson Technologies, told AGL that “The first thing that struck us was that we could not effectively respond for 48 hours because they had to clear the roads. Once we go to the cell sites, we were struck by the total devastation."

But at least one critic pointed out that telecom operators may not face any legal repercussions over the situation: “Keep in mind that thanks to @AjitPaiFCC roll back of #techtransition order and Rick Scott dereg of FL telcos, carriers have zero legal obligation to repair FL networks. Who wants rights when they can have freedom?” tweeted Harold Feld of public interest group Public Knowledge.

Article updated Oct. 17 with comment from Tilson.