Fires on Maui destroy telecom equipment, adding to emergency

Wildfires burning on the Hawaiian island of Maui have claimed at least six lives. The fires in the popular tourist town of Lahaina were so intense that people were running into the ocean to escape the smoke and flames. 

The famous Front Street in Lahaina, with its ancient banyan tree and the historic home of the Baldwin family, has mostly been destroyed by the wildfires.

Adding to the travesty, telecommunications have been one of the biggest problems.

Cell towers and other telecom equipment have been destroyed in the fires. Similarly, the electric grid suffered outages, and telecom equipment also relies on the grid. The lack of telecom service has made things worse for people calling for help and evacuation.

Fierce Wireless reached out to Justen Burdette, CEO of Mobi, a Hawaiian wireless provider.

Burdette said, “The devastation in Lāhainā is just incomprehensible.  So many folks have lost their homes, their small businesses — but to lose an entire community?  And I can't even begin to comprehend the loss of life — the heartbreak the Maui ʻohana are going through today is just unimaginable.”

In terms of the telecom infrastructure, Burdette said, “The fires are still burning on Maui and in spots on Hawaii island, and obviously our colleagues at T-Mobile, Verizon, AT&T, HawaiianTel, and Spectrum are working to restore connectivity in some incredibly challenging conditions.

“Talking with you about telecom infrastructure, on the one hand, seems so small in the face of what folks are having to endure right now.  But, of course, connectivity helps first responders do their jobs, helps families let each other know they're safe, and makes it possible, when we do our jobs right, for folks to reach out for help when they need it.”

He said Hawaii is difficult for telecom because of its topography. And getting connectivity to any given point, let alone reliable and redundant connectivity, is rarely simple and never cheap.

He lauded the potential of satellite connectivity, saying “SpaceX with Starlink and soon, Amazon with Kuiper, will end up being a big piece of the puzzle for keeping more accessible terrestrial connectivity going even in the event of natural disasters — obviously joining with the more traditional redundant backhaul options.”

Burdette said, “I think we will have to do more to reassess the resiliency of our infrastructure in the face of the increasing risks from climate change. While hurricanes or wildfires are not new, as an industry and in our communities, we simply cannot ignore that the frequency and severity of extreme climate and weather events is rapidly changing and testing even the most carefully thought-through redundancies.”

**Update 8/10/2023 at 3 pm ET

AT&T sent an email saying, its AT&T Network Disaster Recovery (NDR) team and FirstNet Response Operations Group (ROG) are working with local public safety to deploy a Satellite Cell on Light Truck on the island to provide Band 14 connectivity dedicated to public safety and commercial service for residents. A FirstNet ROG Section Chief, AT&T NDR employees and drone pilots are also en route to Maui with a Mini Compact Rapid Deployable, 3 satellite solutions to provide Wi-Fi or cell service, a Flying Cell on Wheels, an in-building solution and an Emergency Response Kit, including 20 FirstNet Ready smartphones and 2 Mi-Fi devices to deploy upon arrival as needed.

"We are also shipping in back-haul equipment and other portable communications solutions from neighboring islands," stated AT&T.