Telecom Infra Report: Puerto Rico's arduous path to recovery

By
Friday, February 2, 2018

Puerto Rico is still on the road to reestablishing telecommunication services, which were severely damaged following the passing of Hurricane María back in September.

Following the storm, the US Federal Communications Commission freed up US$76.9mn from the Universal Service Fund for use by telecoms operators to repair damage to wireless and wireline infrastructure in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.

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However, in an assessment commissioned by the US Federal Emergency Management Agency, the island's telecom regulator JRTPR estimated the damage at US$1.5bn.

According to the JRTPR, 97.5% of the island's telecommunication services were back online at the end of January.

The storm took the hardest toll on Puerto Rico's electricity grid, damaging 80% of the island's transmission lines. The lack of electricity ultimately impaired the provision of telecom services.

Although official data indicates that 70% of the island's electricity customers had access to services at the end of January, telcos still rely on electric generators to power their networks.

INDUSTRY OVERVIEW

Puerto Rico's telecom industry reported revenues of US$2.26bn in 2016 and US$948mn in June of last year.

The island had 4mn telephone lines last year, of which 3.2mn were mobile connections and 796,597 were fixed lines. Puerto Rico had recorded a mobile penetration of 96%, according to data from the JRTPR. There were 3mn internet users last year, when the island reported a penetration of 90%.

Mobile services are provided by US telco AT&T, telecom giant América Móvil, which operates under the Claro and TracFone brands, German operator T-Mobile, US carrier Sprint, and Puerto Rican operator Open Mobile. The latter two are expected to operate under a single brand once a merger is completed.

DAMAGE TO INFRASTRUCTURE

According to Sandra Torres, president of the JRTPR, thousands of miles of fiber and other cabling were lost due to the storm.

The regulator reported 2,671 cell tower sites in Puerto Rico last year, 95% of which were out of service after the passing of the hurricane. JRTPR later informed that 92% of the island's cell sites were back online at the end of January.

Puerto Rican municipalities with the highest number of cell sites are San Juan, Bayamón, and Caguas.

Crowdsourcing platform M2Catalyst collected data from 26,419 antenna sectors, the footprint that an antenna covers, and concluded that only 9% were back online by mid-October.

When broken down by operator, 25% of América Móvil's cell towers were functioning when M2Catalyst published its findings, as well as 20.5% of AT&T, 17% of T-Mobile, 17% of Open Mobile, and 13% of Verizon towers.

Metrics from US tech company Oracle indicated that DNS queries handled from Puerto Rico dropped to near zero for a couple of days after the incident.

Although this was mostly caused by the loss of power on the island, it could have also been caused by a technical malfunction in a fiber routing cable, Oracle's director of internet analysis Doug Madory told BNamericas.

TELCOS RESPONSE

Following the passing of Hurricane María, AT&T resorted to temporary cell sites to provide connectivity in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. Additionally, AT&T partners with US tech giant Alphabet to provide connectivity using high-altitude helium balloons.

In a press release the telco said the storm and the resulting cleanup damaged the operator's fiber cables that serve cell sites.

Although the telco has not provided a specific figure, AT&T Puerto Rico's general manager José Dávila told daily El Nuevo Día that losses resulting from the storm amounted to "hundreds of millions."

AT&T plans to launch a 5G network in 14 US markets, including Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. The telco has not provided further details on the deployment of these networks. 

T-Mobile opted to turn a crisis into an opportunity. Jorge Martel, general manager of T-Mobile Puerto Rico, said the telco's investments in restoring its network are greater than what would be needed to deploy a new one from scratch. Nonetheless, T-Mobile's plan is to build a stronger, more robust network.

Between September and October, the operator invested over US$150mn in restoring its Puerto Rican operations. In January the operator informed that 96% of its subscribers were back online. In fact, its subscriber base grew 13% by the end of last year.

T-Mobile underscored that, due to the ongoing power outages, 40% of its network still relies on onsite power generators, which has delayed service restoration. Most of the operator's fiber network has been reestablished and 30% of its network is still using microwave connections.

In November Open Mobile informed that 53% of its network was back online.

Fixed operator Liberty Global estimated that it would need US$150mn to restore its broadband and communications network. The operator already destined US$100mn to the endeavor, part of which will go to deploy underground fiber optic infrastructure, a measure encouraged by JRTPR. Liberty Global had to repair 450km of fiber cabling.

SUBMARINE CABLES

About every country in the Caribbean has a submarine cable landing point. In Puerto Rico, all submarine cables land in San Juan, Miramar, or Isla Verde. The only exception is the GTMO cable between Punta Salina in Puerto Rico and Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

Americas-II: Developed by a group of carriers that includes AT&T, CanTV, Sprint, and Embratel, the cable system has a length of 8,373km and spans from Hollywood, Florida in the US to Fortaleza in Brazil. It has a landing point in Miramar.

AMX-1: Owned and operated by América Móvil, the cable extends across 17,800km and connects seven countries. Stretching from Miami in the US to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, the system has a landing point in San Juan.

Antillas-1: The cable extends across 650km between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, where it has landing points in Isla Verde and Miramar. It was developed by a group of telcos including AT&T, Embratel, C&WOrange, and Sprint, among others.

ARCOS: A ring configuration of 8,400km developed by New World Network spans from North Miami Beach in the US to Nassau in the Bahamas and connects 15 countries with 24 landing points, including one in San Juan.

Global Caribbean Network: Owned by the group of the same name, the 890km long cable goes from Jarry in the island of Guadeloupe to San Juan.

Pacific Caribbean Cable System: The cable is owned and operated by a group of telcos that includes C&W, Setar, and Telxius (Telefónica). Its spans across 6,000km from Manta in Ecuador to Jacksonville in the US, with a landing point in San Juan.

SMPR-1: Developed by TelEm Group and Dauphin Telecom, the system connects two landing points in Sint Maarten with Isla Verde. The cable has a length of 373km.

South America-1: The 25,000km long cable spans from Boca Raton in the US to Arica in Chile and Las Toninas in Argentina. It has a landing point in San Juan and is currently owned by Telxius.

Southern Caribbean Fiber: The system spans across 3,000km in the Eastern Caribbean, connecting 13 islands through 14 landing points, including one in San Juan. Digicel Group acquired it in 2014.

Taino-Carib: Developed by a group of operators that includes AT&T, Embratel, Orange, and C&W, among others, the cable stretches across 186km from Condado Beach and Isla Verde in Puerto Rico to Magen's Bay IV in the US Virgin Islands.

BRUSA: The 11,000km long cable system is expected to launch this year. Once it does, it will be owned and operated by Telxius and connect Rio de Janeiro and Fortaleza, both in Brazil, with San Juan and Virginia Beach in the US.

Deep Blue Cable: Deep Blue Cable's system will stretch approximately 14,000km and initially land in 19 markets throughout the Caribbean region, including Puerto Rico. Deployment is expected to begin at the end of this year.