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Off the Grid

Off the Grid 11/04/2012 7:00 PM Eastern

Superstorm Sandy tore her way up the East Coast last week, cutting off communications in her wake of death and devastation and leaving millions of Americans in an apocalyptic aftermath.

TV providers — cable operators, telcos and satellite companies — scrambled last week to restore service to customers, but efforts were hampered by widespread power outages, downed trees that blocked roadways and flooding that damaged underground utilities across the region.

Sandy made landfall in southern New Jersey around 8 p.m. last Monday (Oct. 29) and created a path of destruction that caused billions of dollars in damage and caused more than 90 deaths in the United States.

Most Mid-Atlantic states were affected as Sandy barreled up the East Coast, but the brunt of the storm’s impact was felt in the New York City area and in New Jersey.

Superstorm Sandy’s floods, winds and associated power outages combined to knock out cable service to 25% of subscribers in 158 counties across 10 states from Virginia to Massachusetts, according to the Federal Communications Commission, but by press time those numbers had declined to about 14%. The number of cellular-site outages was down from 25% in the immediate aftermath of the storm, to 19% last Thursday (Nov. 1).

According to the Edison Electric Institute, more than 6 million homes in the mid-Atlantic area were without power as of Oct. 31; another estimate as of press time last Friday (Nov. 2) was closer to 3.5 million.

$50B WALLOP

The economic impact of the storm could be as great as $50 billion, according to some reports, making it the second-costliest storm in U.S. history, behind the $108 billion toll for Hurricane Katrina in 2005, according to Eqecat, a company that provides risk-modeling services to the insurance and finance industries.

Public Safety & Homeland Security Bureau Chief David Turetsky said the FCC continued to see “steady improvement s in wireline and wireless communications networks throughout the af fected area. However, restoration efforts in the hardest-hit areas — including New York and New Jersey — continues to be more difficult. Replenishing fuel supplies for generators that are enabling communications networks to continue operating is a particularly critical challenge.”

The storm claimed 97 lives in the U.S. In the New York area, 65 people lost their lives as a result of Sandy, with 13 people dead in New Jersey and another four killed in Connecticut, according to CNN at presstime. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the initial damage estimates project up to $6 billion in lost economic revenue to the state as a result of Sandy.

In a statement, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski expressed his “deepest condolences” to those who lost loved ones to the storm, thanked first responders for their efforts and said the agency would continue to assess and respond.

“Overall, the condition of our communications networks is improving, but serious outages remain, particularly in New York, New Jersey and other hard-hit areas,” he said mid-week, adding, “The crisis is not over.”

As of early Nov. 1, about 1.6 million New Yorkers were without power, including 600,000 in New York City and more than 700,000 in Long Island.

The cost of recovering from Hurricane Sandy could run telcos and cable operators between $550 million and $600 million, according to Barclays analyst James Ratcliffe, as cited by Reuters.

CABLEVISION, TWC SMACKED

Cablevision Systems and Time Warner Cable were the MSOs most affected by the storm — Cablevision has about 3 million customers in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, while TWC has more than 1 million customers in the greater New York City area. According to both companies, most of the repair efforts have centered on restoring lost power, with little damage to their respective cable plants.

But that could mean long stretches without service — TV, broadband and phone — for some customers in the affected areas. While New York utility Consolidated Edison said electricity would be restored by last Saturday (Nov. 3) to the 228,000 residences in Manhattan still without service as of Nov. 1, power is not expected to be fully restored in some parts of New York and New Jersey until Nov. 11, according to several reports.

Cablevision estimated that about half of its customers in the New York area, or about 1.3 million homes, were without power as of 4 p.m. Nov. 2. Of the 1.9 million area customers with power, about 8,800 did not have cable service. The Bethpage, N.Y.-based MSO only its transmission facility in Seaside Heights, N.J., was out of service.

“Following this unprecedented event, loss of electrical power continues to be the primary cause of widespread disruptions to Optimum service,” Cablevision said in a statement. “Cablevision crews are in the field and are working to restore service as quickly as possible after the return of power.”

Canaccord Genuity media analyst Tom Eagan predicted Hurricane Sandy could cost Cablevision between $25 million and $40 million in repair costs, service outages and lost business.

In his report, Eagan said he based his estimates on the impact Hurricane Irene had on the company last year. Those costs, he wrote, amounted to about $20 million.

Time Warner Cable spokesman Alex Dudley said the bulk of service disruptions in the New York City area were due to power outages, and crews were following electric utility workers to ensure that cable, phone and Internet services weren’t impacted.

“At TWC, we do not have any significant impacts to our network,” Dudley said. “Some facilities are running on generator power but overall, not too many. Mostly we are ready to go in behind crews restoring power to make the necessary local fixes once it’s safe to do so.”

In outlying boroughs like Brooklyn and Queens, which were hit hard by flooding from the storm, “hundreds” of lines were down, Time Warner Cable director of digital communications Jeff Simmermon said on a company blog. “Ninety-eight percent of our crews are in full force today [Oct. 31] doing repairs and working around the clock to bring back service as quickly as we can,” Simmermon wrote.

At Comcast, which has operations in southern New Jersey and several mid-Atlantic states affected by the storm, most efforts trailed the restoration of power.

“For the majority of people, their Comcast service should be restored as power comes back on to their homes,” MSO spokeswoman Jenni Moyer said in an email message. “We will continue working with local, state and federal officials, including FEMA, the Department of Homeland Security and the FCC, as well as with the power companies, to assess damage and restore service as quickly and safely as possible.”

For Cox Communications, the impact of the storm was felt mostly in its Rhode Island, Virginia and Ohio markets. In Rhode Island, 98% of customers had service and in Connecticut, 95% of Cox customers were up and running. The remainder in both states were experiencing power or network issues.

The Cleveland area suburbs were the trouble spot initially, where 70% of area customers had service as of Nov. 1. However, that improved to 90% the next day as power was restored in some areas, Smith said.

Verizon said dealing with the aftermath of superstorm Sandy could have a “significant” effect on fourth-quarter operating results, but it could not yet estimate the cost. Thousands of the telco’s employees are still working to restore service for wireline and wireless networks, with the storm directly affecting a large portion of Verizon’s Northeast footprint, including New York City and New Jersey.

According to the company’s worst-case scenario, it could take up to two weeks to restore service to some customers, depending on the restoration of commercial power.

“It is not possible at this time to estimate the impact that the storm and the required remediation may have on Verizon’s operating results for the fourth quarter of 2012, but we expect that it could be significant,” the telco said in an 8-K filing Friday with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

“We’re making substantial progress in restoring voice communications, Internet and TV service to consumers, business and government customers,” Verizon spokesman Bill Kula said in a statement, adding that the phone company has restored backup power to three central offices in lower Manhattan that incurred severe flood damage.

“Thousands of our dedicated employees are bringing customers’ services back across the affected area,” Bob Mudge, president of Verizon’s Consumer and Mass Business division, said. “Unfortunately, the extent of the storm damage — including lingering power outages and inaccessible roadways — in harderhit areas like New Jersey and the New York City metro area make full restoration a marathon and not a sprint.”

CRISIS COLLABORATION

Superstorm Sandy also brought out the best in communications companies. The storm even turned competitors into teammates to help keep viewers and listeners informed about the storm.

Although the online tagline for Cablevision’s News 12 Long Island regional news network is “Only on Cablevision. Never on FiOS. Never on Satellite,” the cable operator made an exception in exceptional circumstances.

According to the New York State Broadcasters Association, four of the state’s radio stations dropped their formats to simulcast the cable news channel’s storm coverage. A Cablevision spokesperson confirmed the operator had agreed to the arrangement with station owner Connoisseur Media, adding, “It was very successful.”

Ops, MEDIA COMPANIES THROW LIFELINES

Superstorm Sandy sparked a whirlwind of charitable efforts by the biggest pay TV operators and media companies, both through free communications services and direct contributions to relief efforts. A partial list of those contributions:

Comcast has made its Wi-Fi hotspots and service available to all comers — not just its own customers — in states affected by Hurricane Sandy, including Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, West Virginia, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, and Washington, D.C..

Comcast’s NBC was scheduled to air a benefit concert last Friday (Nov. 2) for victims of Hurricane Sandy featuring artists from storm-ravaged areas of New York and New Jersey, including Bruce Springsteen, Jon Bon Jovi and Billy Joel. The program, Hurricane Sandy: Coming Together, was to be hosted by Today show co-host Matt Lauer.

Time Warner Cable deployed vehicles with mobile charging stations and free Wi-Fi access throughout the Big Apple, while the MSO also donated $600,000 for recovery efforts. The operator said an initial fleet of nine vehicles, equipped with 4G wireless, began making extended stops on Thursday (Nov. 1) afternoon in hard-hit areas including Chinatown, the Flatiron District and West Village. It also opened all of its WiFi spots in the city. Its $600,000 donation including $500,000 to the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City and $50,000 each to the American Red Cross of Northeastern New York and the American Red Cross of Northeastern New Jersey.

NY 1 News has made all content readily available on its website (NY1.com) for any site visitor without having to log in.

Cablevision Systems said 35,337 Optimum WiFi hotspots were operational as of Nov. 1 across the Tri-State area, providing free Internet access to Optimum Online customers.

Cox Communications said customers could use its Cox Solutions Stores, where operational, to access Wi-Fi service and charge phones and other devices.

Dish Network said it was moving additional technicians from across the country to the Northeast to assist customers and to restore service as quickly as possible as power is restored. Safety remained the priority as the company worked to respond to customer needs.

The Walt Disney Co. pledged $2 million for relief efforts, half to the American Red Cross and the rest to organizations focusing on rebuilding efforts. In addition, Disney-ABC Television Group said it will run public-service announcements on ABC, ABC.com, ABCNews.com, Radio Disney and ESPN networks encouraging viewers and listeners to support relief and rebuilding efforts.

News Corp. pledged $1 million — half to the Mayor’s Fund for New York and half to help storm victims in New Jersey.

Viacom pledged $1 million, half to the Mayor’s Fund for New York City and half to local organizations for rebuilding and relief efforts in Connecticut, New Jersey, and Westchester County and Long Island in New York. In addition, Viacom has set up a program with the American Red Cross to match up to $1 million in employee gifts. Viacom also is creating a Viacommunity Employee relief Program to directly assist employees severely impacted by the storm.

Other companies that announced Sandy-related donations included Verizon Communications, Sprint Nextel, and the National Football League and the NFL Players Association, as well as The Coca-Cola Co., FedEx, JPMorgan Chase, Citibank, Target, CapitalOne, Lowe’s and Wells Fargo.

— Mike Farrell

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