Democracy Dies in Darkness

The Switch

More than 90 percent of Puerto Rico's cell sites are out of action

By Brian Fung

September 28, 2017 at 2:19 PM

A person works on electrical wiring in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 28. (John Taggart/Bloomberg/)

With nearly half of Puerto Ricans without clean drinking water, and with the territory's electricity systems "totally shot," according to President Trump, the Caribbean island is in dire need of hurricane assistance. But that's not all: A report Wednesday by the Federal Communications Commission shows that cellular service has been all but obliterated in Puerto Rico as a result of Hurricane Maria.

Although the area's two 911 dispatch centers are functional, as much as 91 percent of Puerto Rico's cell sites are out of action, according to the FCC. The U.S. Virgin Islands aren't faring much better, with 66 percent of their cell sites currently down. The following map released by the FCC illustrates how badly the mobile communications infrastructure in Puerto Rico is damaged.

Wireless service is a lifeline for both victims and first-responders; the federal government has devised official guidelines to help people use their mobile phones in a crisis because of their ability to save lives. Special teams of volunteers have even been known to travel to disaster zones just to set up satellite data connections so that relief workers can coordinate assistance. When minutes matter, being able to communicate from wherever you are is key.

Related: ['Why can't we get out of here?': Airports in Puerto Rico, other islands damaged and slow to recover]

So while the massive wireless outage in Puerto Rico may not be an imminent threat to survival or well-being, the lack of capacity there is contributing to the crisis affecting hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens.

Read more from Brian Fung:

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Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecommunications, Internet access and the shifting media economy. Before joining The Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.

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