SAN FRANCISCO – So many U.S. satellite phones are being shipped to Puerto Rico right now that phone providers say they may run out by next week.
With 90% of the island’s cell phone network down and few landlines operating, satellite phones are one of the few ways for people to communicate and for relief workers to coordinate efforts. Unlike cell phones, the heavier and more powerful phones don’t rely on cell towers or landlines. Instead, they communicate directly with satellites in orbit around the earth.
“Our industry is a small one and everybody’s just had their shelves wiped out because demand is so high given all these hurricanes,” said C.J. Webber, CEO of the SatPhoneStore in Miami.
He just got an order for 350 sat phones from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “We’re scraping the bottom trying to get them those phones, so even FEMA’s having trouble,” he said.
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The situation in Puerto Rico is unprecedented, said Matthew Desch, CEO of Iridium Communications, which runs the world’s largest satellite constellation for satellite phones.
Normally after a big disaster, satellite phone usage lasts about three to five days and then falls off as temporary cell towers mounted on trucks are brought in.
“That isn’t happening in Puerto Rico. We’ve had eight days of incredible spiking of usage — up 100 times over normal,” he said.
There are usually no more than ten Iridium phones working in Puerto Rico. As of Friday, that number was around 2,000, he said. “And that doesn’t include the phones the Department of Defense is using there.”
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The Miami-based Satellite Phone Store has shipped hundreds of satellite phones to people heading to Puerto Rico over the past two weeks, said marketing director Marco Spasovski.
“We’ve seen a massive jump in rentals,” he said.
A typical satellite phone customer uses it for hunting, hiking or work in areas with no infrastructure. That’s changed entirely since Hurricane Maria swept through the Caribbean two weeks ago, said Webber.
“When we pick up the phone now it’s just ‘Please help me. I’m going to Puerto Rico,’ ” he said.
Many customers are relief agencies or people coming to the island to help rescue family.