The storm broke power lines and toppled telecom towers, taking out 95.6% of cell sites and leaving Puerto Ricans scrambling for a signal. It zapped the internet.
Half a million homes were damaged, thousands of people died. By some estimates, the territory experienced the worst power failure in U.S. history.
Extreme weather caused by climate change increases the likelihood that disaster will strike again soon – in Puerto Rico and around the world – and that once again, loss of internet will make a humanitarian crisis even harder to overcome.
“We’re talking about humans of flesh and bone [who died] because of telecommunications, because you couldn’t pick up the phone or message someone,” said Puerto Rican journalist Sandra Rodriguez in an interview with NOVA Next about the internet outages.
Following Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico’s internet problems soon spread. Several countries in South America that rely on submarine cables that land on the Caribbean island, including Argentina and Brazil, experienced network disruptions in September 2017 due to power failures.
A variety of small and big scale initiatives to restore the internet blossomed. The non-profit NetHope sent and installed WiFi equipment. Telecom companies deployed mobile hotspots. Google’s Project Loon delivered internet via balloons. Still, it took nearly a year to restore power to the whole island, and average internet speeds did not reach pre-storm levels until August 2018, according to NOVA Next.
With hurricane season looming every year, Puerto Rican internet advocates are pushing for measures to fortify the internet for the next big storm. In February 2018, The Internet Society (ISOC), a nonprofit that champions internet access for all, issued a report informed by their Caribbean chapters of what could be done to prevent another connectivity disaster.
Electricity is a must-have. But the island’s natural geography and historic planning makes energy supply tricky. For instance, while most of Puerto Rico’s 3.3 million people live in northern metropolitan areas, 70% of power generation happens in the south. That awkward centralization means the grid system has to cut across the island, exposing wires to the elements.
Distributing power up Puerto Rico’s mountains is also difficult and costly. After the power outage, cell towers relied on backup generators. Once the generator fuel ran out, “You couldn’t get to the towers because the roads were blocked, so antennas started to drop off because they didn’t have power. It was messy,” said Eduardo Diaz, a director of the ISOC Puerto Rico board who is also assembling an advisory committee to help develop the chapter’s strategic plan.
Diaz says local loss of confidence in the grid is driving new, sustainable, decentralized energy solutions that fit the climate better. “This is a tropical island, you get sun most times of the year… You won’t believe how many people want to get into solar, or be offgrid in case something like this happens again. There’s a huge market,” Diaz says.
But Puerto Rico also needs to raise climate awareness among internet stakeholders. Despite working in a storm-prone area, the internet industry doesn’t always build sustainably.
Shernon Osepa, Regional Affairs Manager for Latin America & The Caribbean Bureau at ISOC, sees a need to address this problem. “These operators know that we live in a very vulnerable environment, but some of them are deploying networks as if we’re living in a region where these things don’t happen,” Osepa cautioned, noting that some Caribbean infrastructure is only rated to withstand category 3 hurricanes, despite facing category 4-5 hurricanes.
Opening data to the public is also key for the recovery. “We don’t have a picture of how bad the telecommunication is,” Diaz says. He argues that the Puerto Rico Broadband Taskforce should prioritize creating a map of what parts of the island are without broadband service.
Puerto Rico suffered from broken infrastructure and budget cuts long before the storm. The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency has contributed large sums to emergency repairs, but politicians are reluctant to supply the funds necessary for a complete infrastructure redesign. Instead they opt for quick-fixes, or even plans that are not in Puerto Rico’s best interests.
In response to tight budgets, Diaz encourages creative thinking and more sustainable solutions. For instance, he says, existing internet access grants for public schools could be used to create “anchor institutions” that help supply internet to people in surrounding communities.
Climate change is rapidly creating new hurdles for internet advocates in the Caribbean and around the world. We can expect more hurricanes and natural disasters for sure. This urgently calls for alternative and regionally appropriate infrastructure to be deployed already today.