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FCC Chastises Cellphone Carriers Slow To Restore Service In Florida

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A federal regulator has publicly criticized large cellphone carriers for being slow to restore service in the areas most devastated by Hurricane Michael. NPR's Camila Domonoske has the story.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Ever since Hurricane Michael hit the Florida Panhandle, survivors have been trying to get in touch with their families. For some, it's been a real struggle. Cellphone signals went down after the storm hit last Wednesday and stayed down for many customers. Verizon, in particular, had lingering outages. Florida state officials called the company out for lagging behind competitors. After days of complaints, new numbers on Wednesday showed just over half the cell towers near Panama City, Fla., were functioning.

MATTHEW BARRY: There's no doubt we're on a more positive track.

DOMONOSKE: Matthew Barry is chief of staff at the Federal Communications Commission. The agency criticized the slow pace of progress earlier this week.

BARRY: But we need to keep the attention on this problem and keep the pressure on because there's still a ways to go, and we can't have any backsliding in the next few days.

DOMONOSKE: Restoring cell service is always a problem after a big storm. The absence of a signal means people outside the storm's path are left worrying about loved ones they can't reach, while residents have trouble contacting local authorities and their insurance companies. The FCC says it usually takes a few days to approach full coverage. After Hurricane Sandy, it took about a week. After Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, it took six months - an extreme situation. The problem with Hurricane Michael is that, several days after the storm, the FCC was noticing only marginal progress in the most devastated areas.

KRISTA BOURNE: We don't disagree that this is an unacceptable situation.

DOMONOSKE: Krista Bourne is Verizon's market president for wireless in the South. She says Verizon's slow recovery from this storm was uncharacteristic and unprecedented. Verizon's biggest problem is not cell towers, but the fiber optic cables that run to those towers.

BOURNE: The storm path just happened to go right in a critical area where the fiber was laid. And it was just an incredible amount of cuts.

DOMONOSKE: And it's not just damage from the initial storm. As cleanup is underway, Verizon is having to fix new damage to those fiber optic cables.

BOURNE: You have thousands of recovery workers. You have debris removal happening. You have a lot of restoral work that could just have an accidental cut in a area that we've already repaired, and then we have to circle back to make that second repair.

DOMONOSKE: Many people around Panama City still don't have service. Camila Domonoske, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.