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October 26, 2017

Through Hurricanes, Fires and Rising Waters

 

In the last couple months, the country has seen its share of natural tragedy, including devastating fires in California and three Category 4 hurricanes making landfall in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. As the communities try to rebuild, the stories of strangers helping strangers, self-reliance and inventiveness have been heart-warming. 

With widespread power loss followed by enough rain to create lakes of stagnant, standing water, or with forest fires literally burning through fiber optic cables, communications systems were also hard hit. Yet one silver lining is how well the communications networks held up or how quickly they recovered after power was restored. 

In some cases, such as in Houston, as flood waters rapidly rose people used their mobile phones to call for help. Access to wi-fi was often provided at shelters so that those affected by the damage could connect to FEMA, to insurance companies, and most importantly to their loved ones. 

Rapid response came from Verizon, AT&T, CenturyLink, Consolidated Communications and others, including the provision of charging stations and portable cell sites, as Jonathan Spalter, president and CEO of USTelecom, mentioned in Morning Consult. “Apps like GasBuddy allowed those affected by the hurricanes to locate stations that still had fuel and Google Maps helped residents avoid closed roads in Florida. In the Texas Gulf Coast area, residents and volunteers used apps like Zello to help coordinate relief efforts when local 911 call centers went down. In Florida, residents stayed in touch using Nextdoor, a social media network for neighborhoods, to share information like which houses had electricity restored or tracking down lost pets.” 

Drones also played a key role. “After the storms passed in Florida and Texas, broadband providers launched an army of drones to check on equipment and determine if their trucks or boats could reach damaged facilities and refuel generators. Drones can dramatically decrease the amount of time it takes to restore service, as Verizon explained last year, noting that after Hurricane Matthew, it was able to determine from the drone’s video feed that some of its equipment hadn’t been damaged and generators could be safely refueled.” 

In Puerto Rico, Google is even using its Project Loon balloons to bring voice and internet access to areas where connectivity has been lost. 

Last month at an IPI event, “Preserving a Free, Open and Innovative Internet with Chairman Ajit Pai,” the chairman said the “Communications industry deserves significant applause [sic].” Like first responders, doctors and utility repair personnel, communications personnel ran towards the damage even as it was unfolding. 

It is unlikely that we will ever be able to bring all communications systems back online immediately after a disaster. But any rational analysis will show that recent innovations allowed the communication industry to perform admirably, helping disaster victims receive the news they needed and reach those critical to them as fast as possible.


 

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