Puerto Rico telecommunications to be nearly restored in January, regulatory board says
SAN JUAN – As part of public hearings on Senate Resolution 457, which seeks to investigate the reasons for the collapse of telecommunications, the Puerto Rico Telecommunications Regulatory Board (TRB) spoke Tuesday about its role amid the emergency caused by Hurricane María’s devastating path over the island.
TRB President Sandra Torres testified to the Senate Innovation, Telecommunication, Urbanism and Infrastructure Committee that service has been able to continue being restored as part of efforts carried out by the entity alongside the federal government and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
When asked by committee Chairman Miguel Laureano about an estimate for when service would be fully restored, Torres said all the goals set by the government had been met so far. The executive expects 90% to 95% of both wireless and fixed telecom service will be operational in December, with the TRB now working on the second disaster-recovery phase, data service. Calls and texts were prioritized in the immediate aftermath of María.
Torres explained that inventory of the sector’s materials, such as backup power generators, is taken every two years, along with a review of the contingency plans of telecom companies and emergency regulations to continue providing service to island customers.
However, Torres noted that although the sector’s companies carried out their respective contingency plans and have brought sufficient materials and generators to the island, service restoration has been delayed due to the theft cables, generators and fuel at communications towers.
The TRB president also assured that part of the delay has been due to the need to run generators for extended periods, leading to mechanical failures, and that although towers have other backup generators, the lack of power from the grid results in intermittent service for those using the network.
The board also believes telecom network cabling should begin to be buried because the island’s topography will continue to be an obstacle to restoring service after future storms.
In addition, it said it cannot entirely rely on the Electric Power Authority (Prepa) to repair utility poles because scores collapsed and those that need to be replaced have not arrived. Also, when repairing the poles, fiber optic lines are sometimes damaged, hindering the recovery process.
On Nov. 3, the TRB issued an order requiring island telcos to provide information regarding the type of service-interruption credits granted to customers, how many billing cycles these include, how they informed customers of their intention to grant said credits and how many customers have requested them.
Torres explained that the order was intended to establish a methodology because each company has its own policies, and said the companies have complied with informing their customers.
However, Laureano expressed concern about whether the companies have honored their commitments because he has received complaints that some have been reluctant.
“It’s important to make sure these agreements with customers are honored because the reality is they haven’t had service,” the senator said.
Planning Board doesn’t pinpoint reason for collapse
Meanwhile, with Senate Resolution 467, the committee seeks to enforce the telecom sector’s compliance with construction codes and standards, and although Planning Board President María Del Carmen Gordillo endorsed the measure, she could not specify the reasons for the collapse.
She did clarify that Act 89 of 2000 establishes Planning Board parameters for the design of telecom towers, among which are that they not be built on flood- or landslide-prone areas and abide by current building codes. The Permits & Endorsements Management Office is the entity that grants building permits.
The Planning Board head also said inspectors are currently evaluating how the towers were affected by the wind and floods that came with hurricanes Irma and María to identify whether building code changes are required.
The TRB president added that only 5% of the island’s telecom towers collapsed.
“We shouldn’t confuse the towers with telecommunications antennas; the tower is the structure on which companies install their antennas and the latter is what transmits the company’s signal,” Torres said.
Meanwhile, Gordillo emphasized that when built “according to code, [towers] are supposed to withstand [the elements], but constructions that don’t comply with the code or are governed by permits are those that are affected. When the Federal Emergency Management Agency granted funds to rebuild, they had to comply with current codes, but if construction was done at your own risk, you will not be able to receive funds,” Pérez said.