Operators use drones, open roaming to aid in Hurricane Ian recovery

Wireless operators are coming up with innovative solutions to help restore cellular services in Florida, South Carolina and other areas impacted by Hurricane Ian’s destruction. The hurricane, a Category 4 storm, barreled into Florida on September 28 killing more than 100 people and causing millions of dollars in damage. It also made landfall in South Carolina two days later.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is tracking 8,097 cell sites in 30 counties in Florida and 30 counties in South Carolina. As of mid-day October 3, the FCC reported that 305 sites were still not operational. The majority of the sites (167) were down due to lack of power, but 128 sites had backhaul problems and 10 sites were damaged.

Charlotte County, Hardee County and Lee County, Florida, had the most cell sites that were inoperable as of October 3.  In Charlotte County, 21 cell sites were down — two due to destruction, 10 because of transport issues and nine sites because of lack of power. In Hardee County, Florida, eight sites were down, three from transport issues and five from lack of power. And in Lee County, 70 sites were down. Two sites were not working due to destruction, 44 were down because of backhaul problems and 24 cell sites were not working because they lack power.

Open roaming  

AT&T said it was able to restore service to one cell site on Sanibel Island, Florida, yesterday and was expected to get a second cell site operational as well. Sanibel island, which is part of Lee County, Florida, was devastated in the hurricane and the Sanibel Causeway, which connects the island to the rest of Florida was destroyed in the storm.   

Verizon, meanwhile, said it launched a flying cell site by outfitting a tethered drone with a cellular node and flying it over the island to provide cellular coverage to search and rescue teams and first responders on the ground. The drone provides coverage for approximately a five-to -even mile radius and can fly for up to 1,000 hours, the company said.

AT&T also opened its network on September 29 to allow customers from other networks to roam on it. The company reported on October 3 that its network had already handled 38 terabytes (TB) of traffic from other carriers, which is equivalent to more than 13 billion text messages.

Verizon said that it deployed additional 5G C-band spectrum to critical cell sites in Lee County and also Charlotte County to provide more capacity to those areas for first responders and residents.

T-Mobile deployed generators to cell sites that were off line because of power issues and deployed satellite cell sites (SatCOLT) and cell sites on wheels (COWs). It also said it was refueling generators across the state to keep power on at cell sites until power is restored to these areas.  

In addition, all operators are supporting residents of impacted areas with unlimited calling, text and data. Plus, they are also deploying support teams around the area to provide device charging, battery packs and free Wi-Fi service.

Wireless services, of course, aren’t the only critical communications services impacted by the hurricane. The FCC reported that  474,706 subscribers to cable and wireline services were still without service in the disaster areas as of October 3. Starlink, the satellite internet service, is contributing 120 units to be deployed in Southwest Florida to help residents and first responders get internet services.