The tragedy of this month’s wildfires on the island of Maui is nothing short of devastating and will be remembered for generations to come by all the people of Hawaii. The fires have especially affected the western side of the island around Lahaina, which was the Hawaiian capital under King Kamehameha in 1802. That’s one more reason beyond the massive loss of life, which is yet to be fully assessed, why the significance of these fires is so big.
Before I go into analyst mode, I want to add that I personally have many memories with friends and family in Lahaina from all my years of visiting Maui, and the aftermath of the fires has really hit hard for many of my friends who call Maui home. If you want to help the people of Maui, please consider donating to the Hawai’i Community Fund’s Maui Strong Fund.
Trying to better understand the impact of the fires from my perspective as an analyst, I reached out to the three major telecom carriers on the island to find out how they are helping with recovery efforts and rebuilding infrastructure to ensure that families can start returning to some form of normal.
AT&T’s efforts with FirstNet and more
AT&T’s efforts on the island of Maui are extremely important because the carrier’s network enables the FirstNet network, which emergency personnel depend on during disasters. As the scope of the fire emergency became clear, AT&T dispatched its Response Operations Group (ROG) to support FirstNet subscribers. The ROG has used mini compact rapid deployable (CRD) units to provide cellular coverage and Wi-Fi from the rooftop of a Ka’anapali hotel at Black Rock Beach while also working with AT&T’s disaster recovery team to install a wireless solution for public safety at the Kapalua Airport. This is important because that airport is much closer to the wildfire area than the main airport in Kahului. The ROG also used an emergency communications portable (ECP) unit to restore service to one of their cell sites in Ka’anapali.
AT&T also set up a SatCOLT (satellite cell on light truck) in the Lahaina area on Thursday, August 10, and immediately saw high traffic. The company is also using a drone operations pilot on Maui to assess any damage to other cell sites. In addition to hardware, AT&T has sent Hoku a therapy dog, to help those on the front lines be at their best; Hoku has already spent time with AT&T’s retail team in the area, who are thankfully all safe.
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AT&T has put nearly 20 network team members on site in Maui, including specialized disaster recovery teams from the mainland. The carrier is also offering a free charging station at its retail store in Kahului, as well as a 25% discount on power accessories until the end of the month. The company has also made $100,000 in contributions to three organizations to help air recovery efforts and has activated its text-to-give campaigns. AT&T is also waiving overage charges to provide unlimited talk, text and data for both prepaid and postpaid customers through August 16.
T-Mobile’s efforts and coverage
T-Mobile has restored sites in Ka’anapali and Haleakala with teams continuing to evaluate impacted sites around the island. It is working with Maui’s Emergency Operations Center to support first responders and other agencies. T-Mobile has also deployed VSATs (very small aperture terminals), which are portable satellite solutions to restore connectivity in places where the fires damaged fiber connections and commercial power. Additional microwave and satellite equipment is expected to arrive this week, with the focus on providing connectivity to Maui’s west coast. T-Mobile is also deploying a COW (Cell on Wheels) in Lahaina to provide coverage where sites are either restricted due to safety or damaged beyond repair.
T-Mobile is also extending concessions to all Maui customers who aren’t already on unlimited plans, giving them all unlimited, text, data and voice through the end of the month and has also activated its text-to-give campaigns across four organizations including the American Red Cross, Hawaii Community Foundation, Salvation Army and Information Technology Disaster Resource Center.
Additionally, T-Mobile’s community support team is in Oahu to support evacuees and emergency response personnel in Maui. Earlier, T-Mobile also used a COW and VSATs deployed by its emergency management teams to get a temporary network up and running as soon as possible. T-Mobile also has partnered with its local employees to support them as much as possible—especially those displaced from their homes—and will provide compensation coverage for retail teams. T-Mobile has provided fast, frequent updates on August 9, 11, 14 and 15 and has clearly been broadening its efforts and improving the scope of its concessions and support.
Verizon supports recovery efforts
Verizon has also focused on restoring coverage and helping with disaster recovery efforts. Verizon, like the other carriers, has also deployed temporary network equipment to restore service in many areas around Maui including the harder-to-reach upcountry areas closer to the top of Haleakala. Verizon says it has restored service along Highway-37, which serves that area and where there were also fires. Verizon has restored partial service to a portion of West Maui from Maalea and the Maui Chin in the south through the Lahaina Civic Center in the north. The company reports that there is significant structural damage to the cell site serving Lahaina, so Verizon engineers are working aggressively to deploy a mobile cell site to restore partial service to the community.
Verizon engineers are also moving tethered drones into the Western area of Maui today, August 15, that when fully deployed will provide cell service from the air for search-and-rescue efforts that are currently underway. Verizon has also reported that in the Honokowai area there is a fiber line that connects cell sites to the rest of the island that is out of service; its engineers are working to connect those cell sites using a satellite hookup instead. Verizon notes that satellite links have far less capacity than the fiber links typically used for connecting cell sites to the network, so customers may experience slower than expected speeds and more congestion than usual.
Verizon has brought in its Dedicated Impact Response Team (DIRT) and Major Emergency Response Incident Team (MERIT) to help coordinate efforts to restore services on the island. The company is also offering unlimited calling, texting and data for prepaid and postpaid customers who live on Maui through August 23; this includes both consumers and small business customers. Verizon is also providing free device charging and bottled waters to anyone who might need it at the Puunene shopping center in Kahului. The carrier has also activated its text-to-give campaign and has donated $100,000 to the Hawai’i Community Foundation to support the Maui Strong Fund. Verizon also says that it will support its first responders with a Frontline Crisis Response team that is available 24/7 to coordinate with first responders, deploying the necessary equipment to keep them online and operational.
From the stories you hear about the wildfires on Maui, it is quite clear that the people living there are highly dependent on the cellular networks to stay in touch with family and friends. AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon are all working diligently to bring services back to a condition where people can at least call and text their loved ones. Although it is still not clear what the full scope of the damage is to the fiber that runs these networks, let alone how long it will take to rebuild them, it is abundantly clear that all three companies understand the role they play in supporting the people of Maui. The cellular providers are going to be the backbone of rebuilding Lahaina and other parts of Maui that have been ravaged by the wildfires, and I hopeful that they will use this painful turning point to consider how they can rebuild their networks to better serve the communities of Maui.