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By Robin Respaut and Dave Graham
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico, Sept 28 (Reuters) - On a busy highway bridge over San Juan Bay in Puerto Rico on Wednesday, cars pulled to the side of the road. Their occupants emerged clutching cell phones in search of one of the rarest finds on the island: a working mobile network.
A week after Hurricane Maria came ashore as the most powerful storm to hit Puerto Rico in nearly 90 years, knocking out its electric grid, 90.9 percent of cell phone sites on the island remain out of commission, according to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission.
For miles, cell phones deliver one frustrating message: “No Service.”
The search for the elusive sliver of places now capable of providing a signal has become a frantic treasure hunt. Across this U.S. territory, motorists desperate to communicate are herding on the sides of highways, bridges and exit ramps, hoping that their cell phones will come back to life.
Stephanie Trigo, 28, was among those leaning against the concrete barrier of the Highway 17 bridge on Wednesday.
“At least now we’re getting service in some places. At night, when we’re home, we have no means of communication,” she said.
Suddenly, Trigo’s phone rang. “I have a call!” she cried and answered it. At another location outside San Juan, people approached a cell tower with handsets extended, hoping to see bars appear on their phones. Such scenes attract other motorists to stop to see if they might get lucky.
“Everywhere that I see people parked, I figure they have a signal,” said Jose Alduende, 74, from the Highway 17 bridge.
The outage in Puerto Rico is far worse than those of two other hurricanes that came ashore in Texas and Florida in the past month. Cell service in those two states was almost completely restored in storm-affected areas a week after hurricanes Harvey and Irma made landfall.
In the few San Juan hotels with working cell service and Wifi, adults have broken down in tears upon making their first communication with the outside world.
The Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel & Casino has become a particular oasis in the telecom desert. On Wednesday, Puerto Ricans and tourists crammed the hotel’s lobby, clustered around power outlets bristling with adapters and extension cables, making calls or tapping away at phones and computers to stay connected.
“We have lost all telecoms,” Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello told cable news channel CNN on Wednesday.
Puerto Ricans are heavily dependent on cell phones, a prominent source of internet access on the island, which has a cell phone penetration rate of nearly 100 percent, government data showed.
There are five main mobile service providers in the territory’s vibrant market: AT&T, T-Mobile, Claro, Sprint and Open Mobile.
“The Puerto Rican market is so profitable for mobile operators that when they do their first phase of deployment of new technologies, Puerto Rico is always in the first group of locations,” said Jose Otero, director of Latin America and the Caribbean for 5G Americas, a mobile broadband trade association based in Bellevue, Washington.
Mobile phone service providers such as AT&T and Sprint have sent teams to Puerto Rico to restore coverage. They have waived certain fees for customers and set up services that will help people get the word out to friends and families about their progress.
Among the challenges to restoring service is the collapse of the island’s power grid, which has cut power to mobile facilities.
“Power is essential to restoring wireless and wireline communications. Given the breadth of power outages across the islands, we’re deploying portable generators as quickly as allowed,” AT&T said.
Puerto Rico’s relative isolation is a huge impediment as well. When Harvey hit Texas and Irma slammed Florida, mobile phone companies were able to get personnel and equipment from other states quickly into position to restore service.
Heavy equipment must be sent to Puerto Rico by ship. Once there, moving it to distant parts of the island is tough due to damaged roads.
Security is a concern as well. The president of the Telecommunications Regulatory Board, Sandra Torres told the El Nuevo Dia newspaper that the theft of diesel used for generators and copper in the cellular infrastructure is making it harder to restore service.
“This has become a vicious circle,” she said.
Puerto Rico’s crippled cell service has hurt recovery efforts at a time when social media has proved crucial in mobilizing resources and volunteers during disasters.
When Harvey hit Texas, for example, people stranded in flood waters sent out tweets and posts that were quickly relayed to rescuers who responded, often in a matter of minutes.
In remote areas of Puerto Rico, people have resorted to painting “Help” and “Send Food” on roads, buildings and signs, in the hopes of being spotted.
They have also built word-of-mouth networks and sent messages seeking the whereabouts of loved ones through local radio stations.
Maryland resident Brittany Roush and her ad hoc volunteer group ViequesLove sent an air cargo shipment of satellite phones to Vieques, a small island of about 10,000 full-time residents to the east of Puerto Rico’s main island.
She said residents there now queue in long lines daily near the town square in Isabel, the island’s largest city, for a chance to conduct half-minute conversations with family and friends.
“This is the only way to communicate on the ground in Vieques right now,” Roush said from her home near the U.S. capital.
Reporting by Robin Respaut and Dave Graham in San Juan, Puerto Rico and Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Additional reporting by Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale; Editing by Marla Dickerson