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Network Operators Fight Outages, Offer Discounts During Harvey

With the winds and rains associated with Tropical Storm Harvey still battering Texas neighborhoods, network operators and station owners in the state are working to keep residents and businesses connected.

Among cable operators, Comcast Corp. opened up more than 53,000 Xfinity WiFi hotspots throughout the Greater Houston area to anyone who needs them, including non-Xfinity customers. The company said it was aiming to help both residents and emergency personnel stay connected during the storm.

Grande Communications, a cable operator based in San Marcos, Texas, said Aug. 28 that it was aware of service outages in markets across the state, including Corpus Christi, San Antonio and Austin. "We're continuing to work around the clock to restore services to all of our customers," the company said.

In addition, Grande noted "major fiber optic network damage" to the fiber feeding Flour Bluff in Corpus Christi and North Padre Island, one of the barrier islands along the coast of Texas. "We have crews installing new fiber this morning and anticipate restoration later this evening," Grande said Aug. 28.

Chart+-+Impact+of+Tropical+Storm+Harvey

The Federal Communications Commission estimated as of Aug. 27 that there were at least 148,565 cable or wireline subscribers out of service across the 55 counties identified as being in the disaster area.

In advance of the storm, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said the agency had deployed personnel to Texas and provided emergency response officials and licensees with emergency contact information. "These actions will enable us to monitor the extent of communications outages and, working with industry and government partners, support restoration efforts," Pai said.

In the wireless space, the commission said that as of Aug. 27, 4.1% of cell sites are down in the affected area. However, the commission also identified four counties in Texas — Aransas, Calhoun, Refugio and San Patricio — where more than 50% of cell sites are out.

For wireless customers still receiving service, all of the network operators offered subscribers in affected areas a break on their bills. From Aug. 26 through at least Sept. 3, AT&T Inc. will issue credits to customers for additional data, voice and text charges accrued as a result of the storm. Similarly, Verizon Communications Inc. said it will waive overage charges for postpaid customers in South Texas between Aug. 26 through Sept. 8; and for prepaid customers, the company will provide an extra 3 GB for talk, text and data. Sprint Corp., too, is waiving call and text fees for Sprint, Boost and Virgin Mobile customers in the impacted areas between Aug. 26 and Sept. 1, while T-Mobile US Inc. said it would offer unlimited data to those who are not already on an unlimited data plan between Aug. 28 and Sept. 1. T-Mobile is also making it free for customers, including prepaid customers, to call or text from impacted areas of Texas and Louisiana from Aug. 25 through Sept. 1.

The storm comes as Texas and Louisiana are both reviewing options for a next-generation public safety broadband network. The First Responder Network Authority, created by Congress in 2012, has partnered with AT&T to build a nationwide public safety network hardened to withstand natural disasters and terrorist attacks. However, states must opt in to participate. Both Texas and Louisiana have yet to do so. If the states decide to opt out, each must provide the federal government with an alternative plan for an interoperable state public safety network.

In the broadcast space, the FCC said Aug. 27 that no TV stations had reported being out of service, though nine radio stations are down.

"The performance of Texas broadcasters in the path of Hurricane Harvey has been nothing short of remarkable," National Association of Broadcasters spokesman Dennis Wharton said in a statement, adding, "The terrible situation in Texas serves as another reminder of the importance and immediacy of lifesaving local broadcasting."

Wharton in an interview called Hurricane Harvey "a once in a century storm." He noted that the efforts by station personnel to provide information and updates, while "risking their lives" is "what broadcasters do in times like these."