The power is back on in Florida. So why is the internet still out for some people, more than two weeks after Hurricane Irma struck?
When power fails, so do home and business internet connections. When Hurricane Irma hit Florida on Sept. 10, 6.7 million customers lost electricity, or nearly two-thirds of the state. Nine days later, all but 1 percent of the state — 100,000 — had the power back on.
With internet service, it's less clear where things stand. The Federal Communications Commission, which tracks home phone, internet and TV outages, published its last update more than a week ago, on Sept. 18, when there were still close to 900,000 customers without service from cable providers.
Major internet providers such as Comcast, Charter and Cox now say 98 percent to 99 percent of their affected customers have had service restored. (AT&T cites similar figures for its overall network.) But it's not clear how many actual people still lack service.
In Houston, Hurricane Harvey caused widespread flooding that led to power losses and interrupted home phone, TV or internet service for at least 284,000, according to FCC numbers. As of Sept. 5, the last FCC report, almost 154,000 customers remained without service. AT&T says Texas is operating normally, Comcast says Houston has been back to normal for several weeks, Charter and CenturyLink say a small number of customers are still affected.
WHY OUTAGES DRAG ON
Many homes will get internet back once power is restored. But that's not true for everyone.
Even if a home's power is back on, there could still be problems with the underlying cable network or central facilities. Sometimes equipment in a home or street is damaged and needs to be repaired or replaced. (Mobile service tends to bounce back faster. Cell towers are more easily fixable and carriers can use each other's networks to get texts and calls through.)
On top of that, there are a variety of challenges associated with conducting repairs in a disaster zone. "We are not allowed to enter disaster areas until power is restored, then we move in," said Todd Smith, a spokesman for cable company Cox.
Sometimes the damage isn't at all obvious. "There are also occasionally situations where power and (network equipment) in one area may be fine, but the network that feeds it could be damaged further down the line," Smith said.
LINES OF COMMUNICATION
For some customers, though, a major frustration has been trying to figure out just when their service is coming back.
Laura Sagar, a real estate agent in hard-hit Naples, Florida, said her power was restored the evening of Tuesday, Sept. 19, after being out for 10 days. Internet service didn't flip back on until Sept. 25. She said she saw Comcast came to fix a downed line only after a neighbor called to report a problem.
The local power company "communicated often, frequently," she says. "Comcast, zippity doo dah."
Comcast said it has thousands of technicians in Florida working on restoring service, including some from out of state. It said it sent customers emails and told them to check a Comcast app for information.
But Sagar says she expected public announcements and didn't see an email. When she called, the company told her service would be restored within 10 days; it was back near the end of that period.
The FCC collects voluntary feedback from home phone and cable companies about outages after disasters and makes that information public in daily reports. But in the aftermath of Irma, it ceased those reports while almost a million people still lacked internet service.
Stopping the public updates on Irma was "unconscionable," says David Simpson, a former FCC public-safety official. The result, he says, was consumers and communities left in the dark, "with no insight into the scope of the problem on any given day since the 18th."
The agency says it stopped its disaster-reporting system for Irma at the request of another agency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA. The daily outage reports are meant to "provide situational awareness in the immediate aftermath of a disaster." The agency started daily reports on Hurricane Maria, which has wreaked chaos in Puerto Rico and left the island without power or working phone or internet, three days later.
Simpson was likewise critical of the reports from individual internet providers like Comcast and Charter, noting that they aren't anywhere near detailed enough. Those reports don't let people know if there are particularly hard-hit areas — say, where half of homes are still without internet or a working home phone.
"If you know repairs are going to take a month, you would take steps to buy a satellite dish or increase wireless coverage," he says. "Without information, consumers and communities can't make those rational decisions on what to do."