When Disaster Strikes

As many of you know who read this blog, I lived for nearly a decade on St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands. Since all three of the US Virgin Islands as well Puerto Rico got devastated by the two recent hurricanes I thought I’d talk a bit about how our industry responds to disasters.

Disasters have always been with us in the telecom industry. There have been other hurricanes that have knocked down wires and poles in the past. I have a number of clients who have experienced crippling ice storms. I have clients in the West who have lost network from wildfires. And I’ve had clients all over the country who have suffered from massive flooding.

I witnessed the impact of a hurricane in St. Croix when category 3 hurricane Omar hit the island in 2008. The hurricane itself was bad enough. A wall of water came down the hill behind my house, burst through the french doors at the rear of my house and streamed through and out my front door. Then, at the very end of the storm I took a direct hit from a tornado – one of the impacts of hurricanes often forgotten about.

As bad as these storms are, it’s the aftermath that is the most devastating. I was without power for over six weeks, meaning that my consulting work came to a screeching halt. But it took those whole six weeks anyway to clean the mud out of my house and to cut up the hundred dead trees around the property, including a magnificent hundred-year old mahogany tree. And while there are always mosquitoes in the Caribbean, after the flooding from a hurricane they come in dense clouds, making it miserable to work outside. What I remember most about that period is that my world shrank and all of my energy was needed to deal with the effects of the storm. I also learned how much I rely on electricity, refrigeration and lights in a place that gets dark at 6:00 PM every day. It’s mind-boggling to think that there are millions of Americans that will be without power for months.

A category 3 hurricane is strong enough to send trees crashing through overhead wires, and so there were wires down all over the island. But there was a minimal number of poles broken, and so the task of restoring power and telephone wires just needed lots of crews with cherry-pickers. Our island was the only place hit by Omar and crews from St. Thomas, Tortola and Puerto Rico came to help with the recovery. The island was so grateful we threw a huge well-deserved parade and party for repair crews when they were finished.

It was the response from work crews from other islands that made all of the difference. We see the same thing here in the US all of the time. One of my clients got devastated by hurricane Katrina and work crews from all over the US rushed to help. We see this after every stateside disaster as telecom and power crews from elsewhere rush to aid a utility in trouble.

And that is the big problem right now in the Caribbean. St. Thomas and the British Virgin Islands got devastated by hurricane Irma. The storm was so strong that it snapped the majority of the utility poles in St Thomas, meaning the work effort needed to restore the island is going to be massive. Since St. Croix got only minor damage in that storm it become the staging area for the work effort to help St. Thomas and St. John. But then two weeks later St. Croix and Puerto Rico were flattened by hurricane Maria.

We now have the unprecedented situation where all of the islands in the region lost their utility infrastructure at the same time. This presents an almost unsolvable logistical challenge of somehow getting the resources in place to get the islands back up and running. As bad as the Virgin Islands are right now, it’s almost impossible for the mind to grasp the amount of damage in Puerto Rico with it’s rough terrain and 3 million people still without power.

No utility can shoulder the cost of the repair efforts from a bad natural disasters. In the US the federal government has always jumped in to fund some of the needed recovery. The crews that rush in to help don’t ask first about getting paid and they assume they will eventually reimbursed for their costs. The FCC quickly approved $76.9 million towards the recovery effort for the Virgin Island and Puerto Rico. But that’s just a start on the cost of fixing the damage – I have colleagues working on St. Thomas and their first quick estimate of the utility damage there was almost $60 million. I imagine the final number for all of the islands is going to be astronomical.

I know that if there was an easy way to get there that many of the telco and power companies in the US would be sending crews to help the islands. It’s going to be hard enough just getting the needed poles, cables and electronics to the islands. It’s frustrating to know that the logistics challenges means that the repair will take a long time. It won’t be surprising to still see parts of Puerto Rico without electricity six months from now – and that is heartbreaking.

Lifeline Accountability

USAC LogoUSAC, the group that administers the Universal Service Funds, has started testing a program that is designed to stop people from requesting multiple subsidies from the Lifeline program.

The lifeline program provides a discount of $9.95 from telephone bills for low-income consumers. A consumer is eligible for Lifeline if they a earn less than 135% of the federal poverty level or if somebody in the household participates in any of a number of assistance programs such as Medicaid, Food Stamps, Section 8 housing, low income home-energy assistance, Head Start and various tribal and state programs.

The way this works is that the telephone company providing the service gives the discount to the consumer and then collects the funds from USAC out of the Universal Service Fund.

A consumer can elect to get the discount from either a home telephone or a cellular phone account, but cannot collect from both. Apparently there is a lot of concern in Washington that people are collecting the discounts for both a landline and a cell phone, because the FCC has instructed USAC to put together a program to make certain that people don’t collect multiple benefits.

And so USAC is currently implementing the National Lifeline Accountability Database (NLAD). Carriers who participate in the lifeline program are required to input data about each lifeline customer including the last four digits of their social security number or their tribal ID and their date of birth. The carrier also has to provide the full address for each customer and this address will then be verified by USAC using the USPS database of valid addresses. Expect big problems in this area because rural addresses are often very erratic in the USPS databases.

As you might imagine, many carriers don’t ask for things like the date of birth when somebody gets telephone service, so they are now scrambling to get the needed information from their customers.

States are being added to the NLAD in groups. The first group of states now entering data includes Arkansas, Maryland, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Washington. Already some states have opted out of the NLAD database including Puerto Rico, Oregon, Texas, California and Vermont. Those states are going to have to come up with some version of this database of their own or else carriers in those states will lose Lifeline funding.

There is no fee to use the database, but use of it is mandatory if a carrier wants to collect from the Lifeline fund. The real cost is in the effort of each carrier to implement and keep this database current – another unfunded mandate.

I suppose that this process will turn up some cheaters and they will be asked to pare back to just one Lifeline subsidy. But one has to wonder how many customers might have been given the discount by multiple carriers without even knowing that this is not allowed? And one might suspect that there are somewhat shady carriers who are collecting the payments from the Lifeline fund without giving the discount to a customer, or possibly even having a customer. I would not be surprised to find some carriers collecting Lifeline for customers who died years ago.

I hope the FCC publishes the result of what they find through this database. As much as I hate waste and fraud, one has to wonder of the cost of implementing this kind of red-tape process is worth it compared to any savings that will be achieved through eliminating duplicate payments. These kind of processes end up becoming permanent new requirements for carriers and make it just that much harder to do business.