Wireless operators scramble to restore service after Maui wildfires

Nearly a week after a catastrophic wildfire tore through the Hawaiian island of Maui, killing at least 99 people and destroying the town of Lahaina, wireless operators are working to restore service and repair their damaged network equipment.

According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), as of August 14, 19 of the 21 wireless cell sites serving Kapalua, Lapili-Honokowai, Kaanapali, Lahaina, Launiupoko, and Olowalu were out of service. However, the FCC stresses that just because so many cell sites are down in this area it doesn’t mean that wireless services are not available because networks are designed with overlapping cell sites to avoid outages.

The major wireless operators —T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T — have deployed temporary network assets such as cell sites on wheels (and on boats), portable satellite terminals and tethered drones to fill in coverage gaps and restore services to the impacted areas.

Irwin Siongco, retail director for Verizon Wireless in Maui, said in a video that the company released to its employees that about 80% of Verizon’s network is operational in Maui. Siongco noted that the company loaded boats with network equipment as a way to restore service quickly. In addition, Verizon said it is using a Cell Site on Light Truck (COLT) to restore service to Lahaina and it is using a tethered drone called a High Altitude Wireless Kennawhat (HAWK) to restore limited service to Ka’anapali.

An August 15 update from Verizon said it still has limited service between Lahaina Civic Center and Black Rock Beach in Kaanapali as well as in the Kapalua area.

AT&T is using a portable satellite, called an Emergency Communications Portable (ECP), to restore service in some areas. It has also set up a COLT in the Lahaina area and deployed a mini compact rapid deployable (CRD) on a hotel rooftop to provide wireless coverage and Wi-Fi coverage at Black Rock Beach.

AT&T is also using a camera drone to fly over its cell sites on Maui to assess the damage to its sites.

T-Mobile said that it has restored its cell sites in Ka’anapali and Haleakala and is using cell sites on wheels (COWs) to provide coverage in other areas of Maui. The company also said it has redirected one of its wireless sites on Lanai to provide coverage in the hardest hit area of Maui.

Backhaul workarounds

Besides destroying cell sites, the wildfires also wreaked havoc on the fiber and wireline services on the island. Operators use these fiber connections to backhaul the traffic from their cell sites. Because of the outages, the FCC said that it granted Special Temporary Authority (STA) to AT&T so it can use microwave frequencies to backhaul traffic from five cell towers. The FCC also granted AT&T permission to operate two COWs and three temporary microwave sites.

T-Mobile said that it is also using microwave and satellite connectivity as a backhaul workaround. The company also has deployed very small aperture terminals (VSATs) to restore backhaul.