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Thousands lose access to wireless, cable TV during Maui fires

Nearly all cellphone towers are offline and more than 16,000 are without cable or broadband access after fires swept through Maui last week.

Nearly all cellphone towers are offline and more than 16,000 are without cable or broadband access after fires swept through Maui last week.

More than 16,700 cable television and broadband customers are without service after devastating wildfires ripped through the Hawaiian island of Maui last week.

The figure is down from 25,000 customers who were without land-based service reported last Wednesday, but the problem has been exacerbated by a lack of wireless communications infrastructure on Hawaii’s second-largest island.

On Monday, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) revealed 100 percent of Maui’s consumer and business wireless phone and data towers were offline immediately after the fire started, with just one of the island’s 21 main cellphone towers restored to full service.

All three major wireless providers — AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon — provide service to Maui via their own brands and through mobile virtual network operators like Mobi and others. The companies are working to spin up temporary wireless phone and data networks on the island in order to connect subscribers to their network; as of Monday, AT&T had secured special temporary authority grants to launch “cells-on-wheels” towers and permission to operate three temporary microwave sites.

The FCC is still trying to get information on the number of radio and television stations impacted by the wildfires, according to a source at the agency who offered information on background because they were not authorized to speak directly with the media. Most major network affiliates are licensed to Honolulu on the island of Oahu, with translators in Wailuku providing service to residents on Maui.

Officials at DirecTV, one of two satellite-based providers of television service, said they are working with residents and local contractors to replace customer equipment damaged by the fires.

Due to the terrain and infrastructure of the Hawaiian islands, satellite television is often seen as a critical lifeline for local news and information during major emergencies. But DirecTV customers are unable to receive two local stations — KHON (Channel 2, Fox) and KHII (Channel 9) — because the owner of those stations, Nexstar Media Group, has blacked out its programming on the satellite service.

As of Monday, four AM radio stations were transmitting in Maui, along with an unknown number of FM radio stations. Pacific Media Group, the owner of some AM and FM stations, said they were providing rolling news updates on the fires every three hours.

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is the publisher of The Desk and reports on the business and policy matters involving the broadcast television, streaming video and radio industries. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, Disney-ABC, Tribune Broadcasting and McNaughton Newspapers. Matthew is based in Northern California, has won numerous awards in the field of journalism, and is a member of IRE (Investigative Reporters and Editors).