Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico's communications networks. Now, thanks to our sister company Ookla's Speedtest Intelligence database, we have a picture of how they're coming back.
The landline and wireless carriers in Puerto Rico are hustling to restore service, but they're faced with the same, huge logistical challenges as everyone else. T-Mobile, for instance, sent nine cargo planes, two barges, and hundreds of portable generators. Sprint has been flying in satellite dishes and microwave backhaul sets. All of the carriers are using microwave links and satellite connections to cell sites where landlines aren't available.
It's a pretty fearsome task. "We have conducted recons on nearly all of our sites, and those that are still outstanding are largely due to transportation and safety issues – i.e. closed and damaged roads and large debris. Additionally, we have conducted most of the tower climbs needed and will continue to plug away until all are completed. While we continue our work, our biggest challenges remain backhaul and lack of power," Sprint's Lisa Belot told us in an email.
AT&T says it has ships and cargo flights with network equipment steadily arriving, and that it's using satellite connections to hook up cell sites while it goes through the painstaking work of reattaching shredded fiber lines.
Status.pr says that only 32 percent of Puerto Rico's cell phone towers have been restored, but the size of Speedtest's user base is getting back to where it was before the storm, probably because the app is heavily used by the crews rebuilding the networks. On October 9, 1311 cell phones connected to Speedtest's network in Puerto Rico—down a bit from the average of 1,536 before the storm, but not nearly as bad as during the week after the storm.
But looking at the map of where the tests are happening reveals the fragility of the Puerto Rican networks. In the image below, the green dots are tests from Sept. 18, while the red dots are tests from Oct. 9. You can see that the San Juan metro area, home to a third of Puerto Rico's population, is filling in (that's the big red blob) but that outlying and rural areas often still don't have connectivity.
Losing their backhaul, the landlines that connect cell sites to the internet, has really damaged Puerto Rican networks' performance, even as their coverage has been improving. In August, Puerto Rican LTE networks averaged 16.49Mbps down. Now they're down to 5.61Mbps on average, with a typical connection at only 2.06Mbps, according to Speedtest Intelligence.
Fixed ISPs aren't doing nearly as well as the cell phone networks, according to Speedtest Intelligence.
Before the storm, an average of 4,998 devices per day were hitting Speedtest's servers on Puerto Rican fixed lines. That plummeted to a mere 66 devices on the day after Maria hit. The number of connections has been steadily rising, but is now at only 875 devices per day, or about 17 percent restored, as the Speedtest Intelligence graph below shows.
But when landlines get restored, they appear to get restored back to their original quality of service. Unlike with the cellular networks, average download speeds haven't declined dramatically, and at around 30Mbps, they're much faster than LTE. While the cellular networks can keep Puerto Ricans connected at a basic level, they'll need their landline ISPs to get back to really doing business.
Trial Balloons From X
X, from Google parent company Alphabet, has already flown its giant hot-air balloons over Puerto Rico, now that it's received an FCC license to deploy its network through April 2018.
Project Loon could help solve the backhaul problem by redirecting traffic from ground-based cell sites into the sky, where it could then be bounced back down to actually functional fiber. The company needs to partner with a local telecom company for the ground-based portion, though, and it says it's working on it. Loon's stated 10Mbps speeds would be a big boost for Puerto Rico's cell networks, although they wouldn't be up to the speeds that landline customers were used to.
"We're grateful for the support of the FCC and the Puerto Rican authorities as we work hard to see if it's possible to use Loon balloons to bring emergency connectivity to the island during this time of need. To deliver signal to people's devices, Loon needs be integrated with a telco partner's network — the balloons can't do it alone. We've been making solid progress on this next step and would like to thank everyone who's been lending a hand," X's Libby Leahy told us in an email.