How Puerto Rico is Rebuilding Its Network Three Months After Maria

Electrical lineman work on transmission towers in Barceloneta, Puerto Rico.

Electrical lineman work on transmission towers in Barceloneta, Puerto Rico. Ramon Espinosa/AP

Puerto Rico's post-Maria communications effort could serve as a disaster-response playbook for other governments.

It took less than 24 hours for Hurricane Maria to take Puerto Rico off the grid.

The first Category 4 storm to hit the island since 1932, Maria knocked out power, shut down ports and left the entire territory completely in the dark. Once the storm passed, the government had to rely on physical messengers to assess the damage and relay information across the island.

“No one prepares for the complete loss of the communication network,” said Luis Arocho, the chief information officer of Puerto Rico. “What happened in Puerto Rico has never happened with a major disaster in the United States.”

Three months after Maria made landfall, rolled-back regulations, experimental technologies and portable satellite terminals have helped the government and private-sector restore communications across more than 85 percent of the island.

“Disasters are inevitable,” Arocho told Nextgov. “We have to make sure we take this opportunity and create a playbook of how to deal with an entire loss of a network.”

After the storm shuttered ports and stranded relief supplies 1,000 miles away on the mainland, Arocho began working with the telecommunication industry to clear red tape and get them working on the network in as little time as possible.

The Puerto Rican government issued executive orders to scale back requirements for utility work on the island, temporarily waived taxes on incoming relief equipment and streamlined the process for companies to retrieve supplies from the ports.

“I’m asking you to recover the network as soon as possible—you’re doing your job, now I need to do mine,” said Arocho. “That became the logic behind it. You are helping me so I’m going to help you.”

He also brought industry leaders together to flesh out an open roaming agreement that would allow Puerto Ricans’ smartphones to jump from one carrier’s network to another. This way people could call and send text messages wherever there was a signal, regardless of whose network it was.

Arocho thinks open roaming should be part of the playbook for future disaster responses, and governments should be proactive in building a plan. It took more than a week to fine tune the common network in Puerto Rico, he said, but if the system is configured in advance of an emergency, officials can immediately flip on the switch and it’ll “be working like a charm.”

The total communications outage also drew a number of companies to Puerto Rico to test experimental technology. Once he realized the extent of the infrastructure damage, Arocho called Google and asked them to deploy their Project Loon mission to the island and helped them get the experimental licenses they needed for the launch.

Designed by X, an experimental wing of Google’s parent company Alphabet, Loon uses high-altitude balloons to beam wireless connection across remote areas. By early November, the initiative brought an internet connection to more than 100,000 people on the island.

But aside from reconnecting citizens, the government also needed to build a communications network for disaster responders. To do so, both Puerto Rican and federal officials used lightweight satellite communications systems called very small aperture terminals, or VSATs, that can send and receive data in the absence of a network.

While satellite technology used to be slow and expensive, advancements in the industry have made it an ideal system for disaster response, according to Tony Bardo, assistant vice president of government solutions at Hughes Network Solutions.

VSATs provide "ubiquitous, high-throughput coverage,” he told Nextgov. “It’s a proven technology, and it’s readily available. We can get it anywhere in the world we need to in a hurry, and it’s scalable.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has relied on Hughes to support much of its communications on the ground during the response to Maria. The company provides full coverage of Puerto Rico, and in November alone, FEMA used its system to make more than 30,000 calls, Bardo said.

The Puerto Rican government also used VSATs to connect supermarkets and other critical outlets to the internet, enabling them to accept credit cards and other digital payments, said Arocho.

However, Bardo points out the system only works once it’s in place, and in Puerto Rico, it took weeks to deploy the equipment. Disaster response was crucial, he said, but Hurricane Maria also highlights the importance of disaster preparation.

“During the disaster is the last point in time you want your government to have to shut their doors because they don’t have any comms,” he said. “That’s when citizens need them the most.”

Bardo said lawmakers are usually more prone to send funds after a disaster than beforehand. He continues to advocate for agencies to build resilience into their networks, but tight budgets can make government more reactive than proactive.

But Hurricane Maria may change that. He said federal officials have so far supported his efforts to take the lessons learned in Puerto Rico and create a playbook for future disaster preparation and response.

Contingency plans for open roaming networks and supply delivery, putting in emergency communications technology, and better understanding existing infrastructure can make the U.S. and countries around the world better equipped for this type of disaster.

“I think what happened here shows the world they have to review their plans,” he said. “Puerto Rico can serve as a case study for not only the federal government but all the industries so they can see the value of having the resources for disaster readiness.”