Puerto Ri­cans seek low-tech fixes for crip­pled phone ser­vice

Cover­age lim­ited but avail­able in odd spots

USA TODAY US Edition - - MONEY - El­iz­a­beth Weise and Rick Jervis

Dou­ble-bar­reled hur­ri­canes that wiped out the is­land’s cell­phone tow­ers have left 91% of Puerto Rico with­out cell­phone cover­age, cut­ting off a life­line to fam­ily and first re­spon­ders.

The ex­tra­or­di­nary lack of con­nec­tiv­ity, fur­ther ham­pered by elec­tric­ity out­ages and fuel short­ages, has led to sev­eral low-tech so­lu­tions — some peo­ple are us­ing AM ra­dio sta­tions to send over-the-air mes­sages.

As the ma­jor U.S. cell­phone car­ri­ers send in per­son­nel and sup­plies to re­build de­stroyed net­works, one stop­gap so­lu­tion has emerged: a pro­gram that re­lays the most ba­sic of in­for­ma­tion, that an in­di­vid­ual’s cell­phone has been turned on and con­nected.

AT&T and T-Mo­bile, two of the four big­gest car­ri­ers in the U.S. ter­ri­tory, have for the first time cre­ated pro­grams that al­low peo­ple in the United States to reg­is­ter the cell­phone num­ber of fam­ily or friends in Puerto Rico, re­gard­less of the car­rier of the per­son reg­is­ter­ing.

When the Puerto Ri­can cus- tomer’s cell­phone is first able to con­nect to a net­work, they will im­me­di­ately be no­ti­fied that fam­ily and friends in the United States are try­ing to con­tact them.

As of Thurs­day, more than 12,250 peo­ple had signed up on AT&T’s web­site for the ser­vice.

The wait could be a long one. Ac­cord­ing to the Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion, as of Thurs­day, 31 of Puerto Rico’s 78 mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties had no func­tion­ing cell sites. Across the U.S. ter­ri­tory, 75% of cell sites are out of ser­vice, and of the area’s 364 cell ser­vice tow­ers, 284 were out of com­mis­sion. Wide­spread de­struc­tion of the in­fra­struc­ture is worst out­side San Juan.

Cell­phone ser­vice was ex­tremely lim­ited but oc­ca­sion­ally avail­able in odd spots. Each day, on High­way 22, just west of San Juan, mo­torists park their cars on the shoul­der and con­gre­gate on the sides of the high­way, hop­ing

to grab a way­ward sig­nal and con­nect with loved ones back in the U.S. or else­where on the is­land.

Flooded roads, cut fiber lines, a lack of power and thieves tar­get­ing gen­er­a­tors and fuel slowed at­tempts by cell­phone com­pa­nies to re­store ser­vice a week af­ter Hur­ri­cane Maria dev­as­tated the is­land. Maria struck the ter­ri­tory as a Cat­e­gory 4 storm, with winds up to 155 miles per hour. Act­ing De­part­ment of Homeland Sec­re­tary Elaine Duke on Wed­nes­day de­scribed the is­land’s en­tire elec­tri­cal grid as “vir­tu­ally gone.”

Sprint had shipped out a load of sup­plies and parts along with a crew of en­gi­neers and tech­ni­cians who were work­ing with its lo­cal team there, the com­pany told USA TODAY. The first ship­ment in­cluded gen­er­a­tors and fuel, which are in short sup­ply.

Sprint’s head­quar­ters in San Juan has re­sumed op­er­a­tions and is co­or­di­nat­ing the ef­fort to re-es­tab­lish com­mu­ni­ca­tions for both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Vir­gin Is­lands, it said.

In an email to USA TODAY, TMo­bile de­scribed the sit­u­a­tion in Puerto Rico as “ex­tremely chal­leng­ing.” It said all the wire­less car­ri­ers there were work­ing to­gether and shar­ing re­sources to get res­i­dents back on­line.

AT&T said Thurs­day it had sent four char­tered planes con­tain­ing sup­plies, gen­er­a­tors and per­son­nel and plans to send ad­di­tional flights and barges in the com­ing days and weeks.

AFP/GETTY IM­AGES

A wo­man talks with her fam­ily as tech­ni­cians try to re­pair phone lines in Punta San­ti­ago, Hu­macao, in east­ern Puerto Rico.

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