Hurricane

The state of internet outages: What we know and why we don’t know more

Why can’t consumers and business owners get straight talk from their internet service providers about when their service likely will be restored? And why can’t the media get information about the extent of the outages in South Florida?

The short answers: Service providers aren’t required to give it — so they don’t. But it’s also more complicated than that.

A full 12 days after Hurricane Irma sideswiped South Florida, thousands — potentially tens of thousands — of South Floridians might still not have internet and cable services even though Florida Power & Light had restored electricity to 99 percent of the area’s customers by Tuesday. The situation remains murky because unlike the state-regulated FPL, internet service and cable providers refuse to say how many customers they have in the region, and the two largest companies won’t say how many remain without service.

Yet, hundreds of customers have reported to the Miami Herald that they still have no service and can get little or no information from their carrier, be it AT&T’s U-verse, Comcast Xfinity or Atlantic Broadband. Thousands more have taken to social media to vent their anger.

What we do know: As of Monday, the last day the Federal Communications Commission reported on the outages, there were 893,409 customers throughout the state with internet outages. The FCC’s daily reports did not break out the numbers by county or carrier. But judging from social media reports and the size of the Miami metropolitan area’s population, a large number of those outages likely were here in South Florida.

Internet service providers have been making headway. Through Monday, the daily FCC reports showed consistent daily decreases in the number of outages. On Friday, AT&T said it has made “significant progress,” Comcast said it has restored Xfinity services to 93 percent of impacted customers” and Atlantic Broadband said its Miami network is “fully operational.”

All carriers said they have brought in additional resources to restore services more quickly.

Comcast said it has deployed hundreds of additional Comcast crews from Chicago, Broward and West Palm Beach in Miami-Dade. “We have an action plan for every single node,” said spokeswoman Mindy Kramer.

Atlantic Broadband also said it deployed additional response teams immediately after the storm to support recovery efforts.

“We have brought in more than 100 additional technicians from outside of Florida and will continue to bring additional resources as needed. As power companies and other repair crews continue their restoration efforts, we are deploying additional power equipment where needed to maintain and restore wireline service. We currently have more than 460 wireline facilities on battery power and more than 235 on generator for power,” AT&T said in a statement.

That hasn’t satisfied customers who are still without internet connections.

Two different homeowners emailed the Herald on Thursday and Friday, saying technicians for AT&T U-verse told them the problem is likely electronic cards installed in boxes located throughout the neighborhoods they serve. Power surges disabled the cards, which transmit data. There are few spare cards in South Florida, one was told. Another was told that replacing it was the job of a different team.

When asked specifically about these cards and whether there is a shortage of replacement cards, AT&T would only say: “Our teams have the resources they need and are working to repair as quickly as possible.”

[How did your service provider do after the storm? RATE YOUR UTILITY ]

But the disruptions and the lack of information about them underscores that for businesses, consumers, employees, gig-workers and even food stamp recipients, the internet has become a utility, not unlike electricity or phone service.

“Broadband internet access has become an essential service for Americans,” said Chris Lewis, vice president at Washington, D.C.-based Public Knowledge, a public interest advocacy group focused on tech policy. They are using it for voice service but also for the essential functions of their daily lives, such as students’ education, he said. “It’s increasingly how healthcare patients stay in touch with their doctors. ... Most Americans apply through and connect to employment through internet access.”

So why is it not treated like a utility, with more regulation?

The answer lies both with state governments and the FCC.

Nationally, the FCC is responsible for regulating communications, including broadcast, radio, wireless and analog telephone, cable access and internet service. While the agency receives outage reports from all communications providers, the reports are issued on a voluntary basis and are not required by policy or law.

Some states also take an active role in regulating internet and telecommunications services, but Florida is not one of them. Over the past decade, the Florida Legislature has repeatedly taken action to loosen the scope of oversight by the Florida Public Service Commission. As a result, no state body regulates broadband internet, phone service delivered via internet or wireless carriers.

Florida isn’t unique. Many states, including Texas — recently slammed by Hurricane Harvey — have taken that tack since the Telecommunications Act of 1996 began deregulating the industry, said Gus Hurwitz, a law professor at the University of Nebraska and visiting fellow with the American Enterprise Institute.

Nor is regulation likely to increase under the Trump administration, the current FCC leadership or current Florida leadership, experts agree. A case in point: The FCC recently proposed eliminating 2015 net neutrality rules, which require internet service providers to treat all web traffic equally, and received 22 million public comments.

“The FCC regulates [internet service providers] to the extent they are regulated, which isn’t much,” said Bill Newton, deputy director of the Florida Consumer Action Network. “They aren’t required to give numbers so they don’t do it. ... But the internet is the lifeline for businesses and families.”

Said Lewis, “We’re not saying these networks shouldn’t go down. It’s a hurricane. But there’s a basic expectation among consumers that they’ll be notified about when they’re down and when their service will be restored.”

All three major companies operating in South Florida have refused to give specifics about the extent of their outages.

Atlantic Broadband said on Thursday that its Miami area “services have been 96 percent restored and 74,500 customers are back online” and that 2,000 isolated outages remained. But it has never disclosed total customer numbers in its Miami region.

Kramer of Comcast said: “We typically don’t release outage figures because those numbers are very fluid and largely based on the third-party commercial power loss information provided by utilities, and they don’t necessarily reflect the number of customers without our services. Once service restoration is underway and power is restored to homes and to our network, it’s easier to pinpoint the outages that are caused by damage to our network.”

Said AT&T spokeswoman Kelly Starling, “Giving out numbers doesn’t help customers get back in service. … We’re focused on restoring service, and only on that.”

The way internet and cellular providers are regulated explains some of the reasons for the lack of information — but not all. History and pure technical complexity also factor in.

Cellular services have returned more quickly than internet after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, in part due to the experience of New Jersey. After outages in the Northeast following 2012’s Hurricane Sandy caused public outrage, cellular providers agreed to be more transparent about service issues, according to David G. Simpson, a retired rear admiral who led the FCC’s public safety and homeland security bureau from 2013 to January 2017. Under pressure from the FCC at the time, the carriers also agreed to open roaming access to their towers to route calls for other providers and other steps that would enable better service in a crisis, he said. During and after Hurricane Irma, all South Florida cell providers also waived data, talk and text overage charges for customers.

The focus on quick service restoration after a disaster has been more pointed on the cellular industry than on the internet providers because the inability to call to 911 creates a public safety issue, Simpson and Hurwitz said.

But Hurwitz believes the debate over communications disaster response might broaden since Harvey, Irma and now Maria. The reality is many businesses and homes get their phone service over the internet — Voice over Internet Protocal or VOIP service. And nobody can ignore the role the internet plays in our lives.

“Understanding the scope of internet outages and the importance of internet service is going to be a really important lesson learned from this disaster,” said Hurwitz, who co-directs the Space, Cyber & Telecom Law Program at the university. “This is likely the largest disaster of this scale in the U.S. since the internet has come to play as central a role as it does in our lives. There is a lot to be learned.”

Simpson agrees. He said in a phone interview that the cable, wireline and internet service providers have determinedly fought against providing granular information about outages after disasters.

These providers are near monopolies and “they don’t want to get that black eye” with their customers for public relations reasons, he said. “But the reality is people understand why it happens. People have put so much of their lives onto the internet, to this connected internet of things, that the impact compared to what it was 10 years ago is huge.

“We should deserve a better understanding of what is up and what is down in a given region so that communities can help facilitate the restoration,” Simpson said.

[READ MORE: How consumers and businesses can better prepare for the risk of extended outages]

Another factor, say Hurwitz and Simpson: Internet service restoration is a far more complicated and time-consuming than restoring electricity.

“The physical wires that connect houses to the internet are far more complicated than the power grid. … You can just tell looking at them. They are much smaller wires, more easily damaged, more easily taken down,” Hurwitz said.

“The process of reconnecting a fiber-optic cable is a scientific process. You need to cut the cable, you need to polish the ends of it, you need to carefully position [the cables] under a microscope and fuse them with intense heat.”

Comcast spokeswoman Kramer agrees. “In Redlands, North Dade and Miami we are uncovering more and more fiber damage and our crews are plowing through those complex repairs as quickly as possible. ... We have utilized about half a million feet of fiber and more than a million and a half feet of cable during our restoration efforts. We have nearly 900 generators deployed that are still powering parts of our plant because we do not yet have commercial power restored to all of our critical equipment,” she said.

Other complications can arise, as well. Just this week, Comcast crews were working in North Dade when a power line caught fire, halting restoration efforts. “And then in Key Biscayne, we had a burned up fiber line that had to be replaced due to being hit by the power line,” Kramer said.

For consumers and small businesses, the lack of information and mixed messages about service restoration stymies planning.

If an outage lasts just a couple of days, they can work via their phones or hit a Starbucks or library with access. But if the outage lasts weeks — and it is headed that way for some — they might make different arrangements, such as shelling out unbudgeted funds for temporary office space with connectivity or temporarily closing their businesses, for instance.

Jo Mitnick, a Comcast Business customer, owns Crackers Casual Dining in Miami Springs. She never lost power and reopened the store Sept. 12 — but without internet service, she operated with cash only for more than a week.

“Eighty percent of my business is credit cards, I can’t run any credit cards, I don’t have any Wi-Fi, I can’t make any phone calls. I didn’t even know I could transfer calls to my cellphone till a customer told me,” she said on Wednesday.

Even though she has a business account that is significantly more expensive than residential service, Mitnick said every time she has called Comcast she had been given a different estimated restoration date, usually that night or the next day, until it was finally restored Wednesday evening. “They were just guessing. If you tell me it is going to be down for a week or 10 days, an extended period of time, a person can try to prepare.”

Lindsay Wise and Viveca Novak of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

Nancy Dahlberg: 305-376-3595, @ndahlberg.

FCC CHAIRMAN TOURS FLORIDA

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai and Commissioner Mignon Clyburn visited Florida, including Miami, on Monday to get a firsthand assessment of the damage caused by Hurricane Irma.

“In times of an emergency, everyone involved in public safety communications has a role to play. The lessons learned during our visit will help the FCC’s continued work to improve the performance of communications networks in future emergencies,” Chairman Pai said in a statement.

The FCC is responsible for regulating communications in the U.S. and territories, including television, wireless, wireline and cable. The agency receives voluntary reporting for outages from communications providers, including wireless, wireline, cable companies and broadcasters.

In the wake of the recent hurricanes, the FCC has published daily communications status reports. It presents the collected information during disasters so that the public has a snapshot of how communications is faring after disasters.

The FCC issued its DIRS (Disaster Information Reporting System) reports, with daily tallies of wireless and wireline outages, daily through Sept. 18 for Hurricane Irma. The agency said it deactivated the reporting at the request of FEMA, and then reactivated it for Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands on Wednesday. The FCC will continue to monitor the status of communications services in Florida and work with providers and government partners as needed to support remaining restoration and recovery efforts, FCC spokesman Neil Grace said.

Nancy Dahlberg

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