Comcast, Suddenlink Scramble to Restore Service in Texas

Comcast and Suddenlink Communications will have crews working over the weekend to continue repairing damage and hustling to restore cable service to the areas of Houston and Galveston, Texas that were slammed by Hurricane Ike earlier this month.

By Friday, Comcast had restored cable service to 51% of its 750,000 subscribers in the greater Houston area, according to Ray Purser, Comcast’s vice president of public relations for the region.

“We feel like we’ve made pretty good progress the first week,” he said. “We still have a long way to go, but we are now ahead of pace of the main power company…our numbers are looking good.”

There are still widespread power outages in the Houston area, and both Comcast and Suddenlink have to wait until electric power is back in a neighborhood before they can send crews in to fix damaged cable, fiber and drops to subscriber homes.

Suddenlink’s east Texas systems in Kingwood, Conroe, Lake Conroe, Huntsville, Lufkin and Nacogdoches bore the brunt of Ike, according to the cable company. Those systems represent about 64,000 subscribers, but Suddenlink didn’t have an estimate has to how many of those homes were without cable service.

Suddenlink completed repairs already at neighboring systems in states such as Arkansas and Louisiana that saw some impact from Ike.

“This thing could have been a lot worse for us,” Suddenlink Texoma region vice president Todd Cruthird said Friday. “We’re really, really proud of how we responded and our employees, but we still have a lot of work to do. And I’m hoping that in the next five days, as the power comes up, we’ll be getting real close to business as usual, which is phenomenal considering the direct hit we took.”

Suddenlink is using generators to test its network in areas that don’t have power yet, and Cruthird estimated that 85% of his plant will be ready to resume operations once electricity is turned on again.

Cruthird said that even with some power outages still affecting service, Suddenlink had restored service to about 95% of Lufkin customers, about 90% in Nacogdoches and about 80% in Huntsville. On Wednesday and Thursday, crews repaired about 300 drops in Nacogdoches. Suddenlink is still powering some of its neighborhood nodes with generators until commercial power is fully restored.

Suddenlink customer care offices are open in all communities, except Lake Conroe. That office is expected to reopen Monday.

Neither Comcast nor Suddenlink had dollar estimates for how much damage was done to their plants as a result of Ike’s strike the weekend of Sept. 12.

One of the challenges Comcast faces is finding food for some of its workers, which include 500 technicians who have come in from other Comcast systems or are independent contractors. Many Houston restaurants are closed, and grocery stores remain unstocked, according to Purser. But Comcast has scouted out some open eateries, who have been throwing in some free food to employees.

For example, last week Comcast ordered 400 burritos from Chipotle, and the restaurant chain added another 100 to the order at no charge, “because they know they are going to employees who are working very hard to bring the service back,” Purser said.

Jack in the Box had an order for 500 hamburgers promptly ready on last Wednesday morning for Comcast, according to Purser.

Suddenlink employees in the company’s offices in Tyler and Bryan, Texas, have been sending supplies to their fellow workers at the Ike-ravaged systems.

“We’ve had trucks running from Tyler and Bryan to bring groceries, milk, diapers, all kind of rations,” Cruthird said. “We’ve had to do our own internal Red Cross effort.”

Galveston was virtually devastated by Ike, and Comcast’s plant sustained a lot of damage on the island.

“It’s sort of a completely different animal [from Houston],” Purser said. “Obviously in those areas we’ve got complete devastation and the network’s going to have to be rebuilt there.”

Comcast was setting up a communications center in Galveston—with computers, working phones and two HD TV sets—so residents stranded on the island by Hurricane Ike can contact their loved ones and apply for assistance from FEMA.

There are an estimated 15,000 residents who are still in Galveston, who did not evacuate before the storm. They are isolated, with no electric power, Internet or cell phone service, according to Purser.

“It’s really a desperate situation for many families there,” Purser said.

FEMA will be supplying a generator that will power the communications center, according to Purser.

The good news is that Comcast’s 2,700 employees in the Houston cluster are alive and accounted for, although impacted by the deadly hurricane.

“We do have employees that have had significant damage, everything from their entire home being destroyed to flooding to major roof damage and structural damage to their homes,” Purser said.

“We are contending with that and working with our employees, especially our displaced employees, to find them temporary housing, taking care of their needs,” he said. “Really that’s our family and we want to make sure that they’re taken care of.”

About 200 Suddenlink employees in East Texas were directly impacted by Ike, but they were not hurt and none sustained a lot of damage to their homes, according to Cruthird.

Comcast is running public-service announcements on local Houston TV stations asking its subscribers to remove any debris they see around cable gear, to help clear the way for the cable company to make repairs.

On Friday Comcast was also putting together a local Web site where subscribers can find a color-coded map to see where cable service has been restored.