The big question on the minds of most Floridians last week — when is my power coming back? — eclipsed another breakdown in critical public infrastructure, as Hurricane Irma devastated cellphone, Internet and cable service across wide parts of Florida. The Internet has become an everyday lifeline, enabling millions of residents to communicate, run a business or help secure their families and property. The state should require more from this industry in an emergency, and providers should offer more to customers left without service by the storm.
Irma left at least 7.6 million cable and Internet customers in Florida without service last week, and in the first full day of the recovery effort, more than one-fourth of all cell sites in the state were out, with half or more of all cell sites out in six counties, including Monroe (81 percent), Collier (76 percent) and Hendry (67 percent). By the weekend, as electricity was restored across the state, most services also had been restored. As of Monday, slightly more than 1 million customers still lacked cable and Internet service, and only 4 percent of all cell sites were still down.
The network recovered quickly enough, for the most part, but customers were still left in the dark about service interruptions after the storm. Unlike electric utilities, telecom companies do not disclose who and how many customers are without service. Companies regularly report service outages to the Federal Communications Commission, but those reports are treated as confidential trade secrets by the government. During a disaster, companies report outages to the FCC, and the agency makes some broad numbers publicly available. But that reporting is voluntary, making it virtually impossible to see the outages and the recovery effort in real time. The system is so flawed that at least one telecom provider last week was submitting multiple outage reports, the FCC noted, which only served to inflate the scope of downed service across the state.
These companies use public property to operate this critical public infrastructure, and they should be required to publicly report service outages during a disaster. Regular updates by the power companies help residents appreciate the scope of the work facing the utilities and give them some sense of when services will be restored, an important feeling of normalcy after a storm. This is not unduly burdensome for the telecom companies, and it's a fair price for the ever-expanding role these companies are playing in society and the economy.
Cable, Internet and cellphone providers have waived some fees and offered other concessions to customers in storm-affected areas. But this is not enough. Sen. Bill Nelson wrote to the companies last week urging they provide rebates or credits to those whose voice, video or data service was interrupted by Irma. Several providers said they would consider rebate requests on a case-by-case basis. That is unreasonable, and it will only cause an unnecessary backlog for customer service.
The telecom providers were not nearly as responsive as they needed to be in the aftermath of Irma. These companies provide more than entertainment; they provide a medium for people to stay in touch and informed, for businesses to operate and for the state to recover. They need to be held to a standard in keeping with the role cellphones and the Internet play in modern society. Doing the bare minimum is not good enough — not for customers or a growing state. The industry can and should do better.