Weathering the storm in the digital age
By Joy Santamarina
“We’ve been living like cave people,” Attorney General Douglas Moylan said at the Rotary Club of Tumon’s June 27 gathering where he summed up residents’ frustrations over the slow recovery process from the powerful typhoon Mawar.
As of this writing, thousands of residents on Guam were still reeling from the Category 4 storm that hit the island on May 24. With sustained winds of over 150 mph, the typhoon stripped off trees, wrecked beaches, damaged buildings and houses, and cut basic infrastructure like power, water, and telecommunication services.
From a telecommunications infrastructure perspective, the recovery has been dismally slow at best. While Guam is familiar with the impact of storms, the Mawar experience proved to be more challenging. It took place in the digital era when pretty much every aspect of daily living is dependent on online access. The internet outage disrupted residents’ normal routines. Commercial transactions temporarily reverted to a cash-only basis due to businesses’ inability to process debit and credit cards. Banks were closed for more two weeks while ATMs were disabled.
The communication network was disconnected, and phones had no mobile data, leaving most islanders without a platform to connect or even get updates on the situation. Local television and radio stations failed to operate, as well, due to the damage sustained from the storm.
Residents parked in public places where they could catch any available WiFi signals. Hilton Resort and Spa and Agana Shopping Center opened up their establishments to allow residents to tap into their working networks and charge their phones.
None of the major telecommunication companies have completely restored their services. They tried to appease frustrated residents with rolling updates on areas and portions of their services that have been restored, assuring subscribers that they were doing their best.
Frustrated subscribers turned to social media to vent their concerns. In response, all three companies committed to some form of service credits and/or suspension of disconnection or late fees for their affected subscribers. While that may be reassuring, nothing beats having their actual services back.
“A storm of this magnitude, with islandwide power outages complicated restoration efforts. Wherever it was possible, we deployed generators to cell sites to provide service in affected areas,” said Jim Oehlerking, president of IT&E.
“In the southern region, in particular, IT&E's fiber network sustained substantial damage from typhoon Mawar and the team worked around the clock to make repairs and optimize the network. From what we see, IT&E came back about a week after the typhoon passed," he added.
Docomo Pacific has set a July 31 target to complete the restoration of its home/business internet services and the optimization of its mobile network quality. The company vowed to accelerate the restoration process with additional off-island resources now on Guam.
“Our network infrastructure spans approximately 900 miles, which definitely took a dedicated team effort to assess damages, and which are going to be tackled in rapid succession with our additional resources now on-island. We thank our Guam Mobile and Field Operations teams for completing these Phase 1 achievements in less than a month,” said Jared Roberto, public relations manager for Docomo.
“Our additional resources include over 80 skilled workers consisting of mobile technicians, fiber and coax technicians, construction linemen and project managers, along with a fleet of over 30 bucket trucks, pick-up trucks, and cable spool trailers. Headcounts are all on-island and a couple of fleets are en route to Guam from the states,” Roberto said.
IT&E said it immediately brought in its CNMI teams and tied up with CalPac to complement its manpower on Guam. The company said it was able to restore the majority of services about a week after the typhoon passed.
Both GTA and IT&E, on the other hand, announced that the majority of their mobile networks were operational but may still experience intermittent services due to rolling power outages. At-home internet/broadband access updates were given on a by-area basis.
There are several considerations affecting the restoration efforts of telecommunications services in a natural disaster of Mawar’s magnitude. First is safety. It obviously needs to come first even after the height of the typhoon and the weather has settled. Restoration efforts cannot commence in unsafe areas.
Second, the accessibility of the areas will enable the telco crews to reach the sites affected and restore services. If the area is still isolated, then there is minimal chance that telco services will be restored there as well.
Third, the availability of more basic infrastructure, such as the electricity that powers the telecommunication networks at both the specific site and central operations levels. Unavailability or the intermittency of power makes the restoration efforts even more complicated as some equipment is sensitive to power fluctuations.
Guam Power Authority, in its update bulletin for the last week of June, said it has restored power to a little over 90 percent of its customers with some key transmission lines still undergoing repairs. Thus, the availability of alternative power sources such as batteries and generators—and the corresponding fuel needed— becomes crucial for the telcos in their efforts to restore services.
Even if the telcos have restored their services, if GPA power or the alternative power is intermittent, then the consistency and quality of the services still leave much to be desired.
The fourth consideration is the actual repairs needed for the equipment, which can range from the onsite infrastructures (the cell sites or broadband/landline boxes), aerial fiber and cables, various instrumentations, and the corresponding connections to the networks’ central operations centers (whether for voice, messaging or data). With the magnitude of the destruction brought about by Mawar, there is a high likelihood that all telcos didn’t have enough spares and extra equipment on hand.
Assuming the physical assets have been restored and GPA power is back, there is still a need to optimize the networks for the services to be at the pre-Mawar levels.
The last consideration is the field resources needed to complete the restoration - from both a quantity (the number of teams and trucks available 24/7), and quality perspectives (the competencies needed to restore service.)
There are some indications that complete restoration will soon be at hand. But it’s been long in coming. Furthermore, the various telcos need to assess their resiliency and disaster recovery practices. Guam is an island and is not immune to natural disasters. It has just been fortunate enough that it hasn’t experienced a major typhoon in twenty years.
The recent Mawar experience has shown how unprepared Guam is, the telcos included. It needs to regroup as a community, take a hard look at the facts at the core of the restoration issues, and have a comprehensive plan that will make the island more resilient in the future, and then act on that plan with businesses and government working together to ensure Guam’s residents do not experience this again.
“Typhoon Mawar definitely was a test to our resilience and disaster preparedness. IT&E is evaluating additional backup power requirements,” Oehlerking said. “Moving forward, we will continue to strengthen the network infrastructure to withstand any natural disaster, implement power redundancies, replace as much aerial fiber with buried fiber as we can, and improve contingency plans.”
On June 27, the U.S. Department of Commerce awarded Guam $156 million in Broadband Equity Access Deployment (BEAD) funding to increase access to reliable high-speed internet for the island. The funding for Guam's broadband infrastructure was increased from an initial allocation of $25 million.
“This increase in funding represents more than a year of work in making a strong case with the Commerce Department to secure as much broadband funding for Guam as possible,” said Tyrone J. Taitano, who leads the Office of Infrastructure Policy and Development, which is responsible for broadband funding. “This enormous investment in broadband infrastructure will not only help bridge the digital divide, it will help diversify our economy and create new business and job opportunities for our community,” he added.
This funding can potentially be a catalyst to a more resilient, more accessible broadband experience for all, typhoons and other natural disasters notwithstanding.