Puerto Ricans seek low-tech fixes for crippled phone service
Coverage limited but available in odd spots
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.
A woman talks with her family as technicians try to repair phone lines in Punta Santiago, Humacao, in eastern Puerto Rico.