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Telecom Exec Shares Disaster Resiliency Strategy

By on September 21, 2018

Editor’s note: The following originally appeared in the Sept. 20, 2018, issue of Caribbean Business.

Elimination of the property tax on monthly inventory, better communication with the private sector from the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (Prepa), generation of energy close to the most populated areas, and strengthening of the electrical and telecommunications infrastructure were only some of the recommendations offered by Jorge Martel, vice president & general manager of T-Mobile Puerto Rico, during his speech at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s Leadership Conference.

The spokesperson for the wireless service and mobile device provider participated in a panel titled, “Building Resilient Cities: Emergency Preparedness & Smart Solutions,” which brought together experts in emergency preparedness, who focused the discussion on best practices for effective disaster management, strategies to ensure protection of critical assets, disaster victims’ access to vital resources and efforts to create resilient infrastructure that reduces the devastating impact of hurricanes, such as those that struck Puerto Rico, Florida and Texas last year.

The panel included Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner in Washington, D.C., Jenniffer González Colón; Kevin J. Bush, D.C.’s first chief resilience officer; Cristina Martin Firvida, AARP Government Affairs director of Financial Security & Consumer Affairs; and Ronny Sandoval, senior director of the grid-modernization program at the Environmental Defense Fund.

“The inventory of tax laws we have must be reviewed because, right now, companies don’t have excess inventory because they don’t want to pay taxes for something they won’t use, but in the case of a hurricane or any other emergency, you need those companies to have inventory stored in safe places because being on an island makes us vulnerable,” Martel explained.

He reiterated that “priority must be given to the telecommunications industry in Prepa’s plans, and when it [the utility] starts to recover, that its plans are known. Unfortunately, we learned what’s going to happen through the media because we don’t have that communication, and that could help us coordinate and move our resources to critical areas. We also need electricity generation much closer to geographic areas with larger populations. What we have today—that energy is generated in the south and transmitted by a cable to the north—we feel is extremely challenging given the island’s topography,” he added.

Martel emphasized that the central government and private companies must develop a strategic plan to bury all optical fiber in Puerto Rico’s telecommunications infrastructure as well as electric power service.

“We know it’s not very practical to bury, but on an island such as Puerto Rico, we believe it is crucial for economic development, and this would not only help telecommunications, this would benefit all industries on the island,” he said.

The executive revealed that given the circumstances surrounding Prepa, his company does not depend on the public utility to continue its operations in the event of another islandwide disaster.

Martel mentioned as an example the strategy used in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, when a quasi-military operation was run to supply diesel generators that kept the company’s infrastructure functioning by transporting up to 8,000 gallons of fuel a day.

Regarding the possibility that local government would be willing to address his company’s telecommunications-related recommendations, Martel said he was optimistic the government of Puerto Rico could be the driver of sustainable recovery for the island.

“I’m an optimist, but I must admit, unfortunately, that in Puerto Rico people always think everything is solved by approving new laws, but I think that’s not the solution. We have to unite and work toward the same goals,” he said.

“The government has to take initiatives that encourage us to put more engineers to work on networks and fewer lawyers working on laws and going through paperwork, back-and-forth, and of course, we know they do it with the best of intentions but that’s not the way to be more effective,” he added.

Prepared for 5G

Martel said that after the experience of Hurricane Maria, T-Mobile increased the number of generators for its cell sites, established an entire logistics operation that includes distribution, transportation, maintenance, replacement, fuel supply for generators and other equipment to ensure continuity of service in areas without commercial power service or wherever it fails, to bury telecom infrastructure, and keep the microwave technology that was installed following the historic storm to re-establish service in an emergency, among other measures.

These advancements, the general manager said, pave the way to improve the capacity, speed and coverage of the wireless network, in addition to the company’s deployment of its 600 megahertz (MHz) Extended Range LTE (long-term evolution) that is already live in Puerto Rico. It allows for further expansion of the network’s coverage and, at the same time, lays the foundation for 5G cell service.

“T-Mobile was the only wireless company in Puerto Rico that acquired 600 MHz to provide better coverage and reach rural areas where the signal did not reach before. The benefit is two times greater coverage, and four times better penetration in structures,” he explained.

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