Surviving the Storms - Broadcasting & Cable

Surviving the Storms

Florida cable systems weather one-two punch
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Ice, fuel and generators. That's what Filemon Lopez wants more than anything else right now because that's what he needs to get Comcast's hurricane-battered systems back up and running.

The Comcast regional senior vice president and executives from other Florida cable operators are scrambling for the second time in a month to restore service to hundreds of thousands of subscribers who have lost service. Cable's infrastructure is far more fragile than broadcast antennas. Cable wires hanging from poles get pulled down; underground wires get torn up as winds uproot trees.

Hurricane Frances wasn't nearly as damaging to cable systems on Florida's East Coast as the more powerful Charley was to Gulf Coast systems in August. Still, Frances cut electrical lines to as many as 2.8 million subscribers. Only after electrical crews restore power to a neighborhood can cable crews determine the physical damage to the plant. The good news, say local cable operators, is that none of their most crucial facilities—headends—were severely damaged. Equipment nodes in neighborhoods seem to be intact. Still, the storm still blew down thousands of cable wires between utility poles and subscribers' homes and tore out untold miles of trunks, the main lines of the system.

In the hardest-hit areas around West Palm Beach, about 62,000 of Adelphia Communications' 185,000 customers were without service. Most of Comcast's 65,000 customers around Vero Beach lost service, and techs have only been able to "walk" about 60% of its plant because some heavily-damaged areas are closed off to outsiders. Bright House networks in central Florida are generally restoring cable service as soon as electricity returns—a few days in some cases, a few weeks in others.

System employees had braced themselves. Adelphia loaded up on bottled water and spare cable and fiber and had three engineers sleeping in a headend facility—one designed to withstand 200 m.p.h. winds.

The planning doesn't always work out. Knowing they would need to keep backup generators running, Comcast ordered its own gasoline tanker from South Carolina. Unfortunately, the truck lacked the proper permits and was stopped at the state border. "We went to plan B," Lopez says, scrambling for gas from local suppliers in an area suffering a fuel shortage.

The storm is causing tremendous problems at Nielsen, which suspended ratings reports for West Palm Beach, Orlando, Tampa and Jacksonville. The ratings firm's crucial Florida data facilities weren't harmed by Frances. But the widespread power and phone outages leave the company with too few homes for a valid sample. Nielsen needs around 350 homes reporting data from each local market for a valid sample.

As of Thursday, Nielsen was getting data from meters in just 76 homes from West Palm Beach and 223 homes in Orlando. Ft. Meyers has been down since Hurricane Charley hit Aug. 13, but Nielsen has gotten 308 homes back online. Ratings from those markets might be restored by this week.

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