Mawar exposed essential nature of telecommunications networks
By Dana Williams
With many residents frustrated by the lack of phone and internet service after Typhoon Mawar, Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero met with representatives from the island’s three telecommunications companies.
“She made a comment that during Pongsona, the mobile network was really solid,” Docomo Pacific President and CEO Roderick Boss said. “It was kind of a lifeline for everybody as they recovered from that typhoon."
Boss said GTA’s Chief Operating Officer Andrew Gayle, who worked for Guamcell in 2002, explained there were 13 cell sites at the time.
“And 13 cell sites had backup power, and they were able to, of course, recover them very quickly,” Boss said during the Guam Chamber of Commerce’s Business Recovery Summit on July 7.
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In 2002, those sites were providing voice service only, not data.
“And now the three providers all have over 100 cell sites across Guam,” he said, “So the complexity about keeping those cell sites up and powered and damaged, is much, much different today than it was in 2002.”
Boss and IT&E Marketing Director Angela Rosario explained the difficulties the companies faced as they worked to restore service after Mawar.
“If there's damage, there are usually three things that can be wrong with the cell site. One is the equipment itself is damaged, the actual antennas or the towers,” Boss said. "The second is the lack of power to the site. The third is damage to transmission lines.”
In addition to the cell sites, “we also have 400, what we call internet nodes that are actually in the neighborhood, which has equipment that actually supplies the internet to each neighborhood across Guam,” Boss said. “So every one of those nodes has to be tested, some in some cases completely replaced or repaired at the transmission line. So it's really just a labor-intensive job.”
Both Boss and Rosario said power was a huge barrier to restoration.
“A frustration that we saw the very beginning of this storm was that we also were kind of waiting in line for fuel,” Boss said. “We had a hard time getting that because we weren't on the list as a first responder.”
Rosario said IT&E’s sister company, IP&E, which operates Shell gas stations, helped by providing fuel for generators at IT&E cell sites.
With malls and retail locations closed, IT&E store employees were used to run generators and work on restoration.
“We didn't even have to call them in,” Rosario said. “They came in themselves. They came in and they said, 'What do we need? What do we need to get communications back up?’”
Although communication can be considered an essential service, it is being provided by private companies. Boss said people need, power, water and connectivity, because “nobody can do anything in their own restoration without communications.”
“FEMA came to us early on and asked us if there was anything we needed. And first thing we said is, ‘We need generators.’ And the response was that they don't provide generators to private companies,” Boss said. “The frustration for us is that we are really a utility.”
Although GTA did not have a representative on the panel, the company provided a written statement that called for improving Guam’s power resiliency and recognizing the role of communications companies.
“As telecommunication networks continue to grow in importance for communication and essential operations, it becomes crucial to add to acknowledge their role as a critical component of emergency infrastructure,” the statement said. “This entails providing support and including them in the distribution of emergency fuel, with a focus on prioritizing access to critical sites.”