TR Daily Coalition Seeks Hill Probe of FCC’s Hurricane Response
Friday, September 20, 2019

Coalition Seeks Hill Probe of FCC’s Hurricane Response

A coalition of 35 groups and individuals wrote House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) today to urge congressional leaders to investigate what they said was the failure by the FCC to adequately probe the communications network failures in Puerto Rico after hurricanes Maria and Irma in 2017.

“On the second anniversary of Hurricane Maria, the undersigned group of Puerto Rican advocates, racial-and social-justice organizations, and media and telecommunications advocacy groups urge Congress to use all of its oversight authorities to examine the recovery on Puerto Rico. Specifically, we write regarding the current status of recovery efforts related to the telecommunications infrastructure on the islands,” the letter said. “Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated Puerto Rico in September 2017. They destroyed much of the island’s critical infrastructure, including its communication networks. The inability to communicate during and after the disaster contributed to the islands’ historic death toll. It hampered recovery efforts, and prevented people from being able to seek help and access life-saving services.

“Two years later, we still know very little about the contributing causes of the communications crisis in Puerto Rico. While the Federal Communications Commission has awarded telecom companies federal funding to restore service, we know little about how the companies are spending that money or the nature and pace of restoration efforts,” letter added. “The expert agencies tasked with restoring communication services—the FCC and the Federal Emergency Management Agency—have failed to investigate why these communications networks collapsed. The FCC has produced scant information in response to our Freedom of Information Act request on why it took so long to restore service, and in fact that service has yet to be fully restored. FEMA has yet to produce a single document.”

The letter added that the Commission “has a history of investigating disruptions to communications networks caused by a disaster. It did so after Hurricane Katrina in 2006. That led to policy changes such as the expansion of the Lifeline program, which previously subsidized only landline telephone service for low-income people, to cover wireless services. The agency also produced a report following Hurricane Michael in 2018, which resulted in the FCC criticizing the lack of coordination among wireless- and landline-service providers, power crews and municipalities in restoring communications in the wake of that storm. However, this report was far from a comprehensive investigation. Yet the FCC’s report on the Atlantic hurricane season of 2017, which included Hurricane Maria, failed to provide any useful or critical analysis of why there was a near-total collapse in communications in Puerto Rico.”

“This is why we urge Congress to use all of its oversight powers, and to hold hearings on how the Trump FCC responded to the communications crisis in Puerto Rico, in order to understand what happened and then hold everyone—both government officials and departments, as well as private actors—accountable for their failures,” the letter concluded.

Among the groups signing the letter were Color Of Change, Collective Action for Puerto Rico, Common Cause, Demand Progress, Fight for the Future, Free Press Action, Greenpeace US, the National Consumer Law Center, the National Hispanic Media Coalition, and Public Citizen.

In response to today’s letter, an FCC spokesperson said, “The FCC’s response to Hurricanes Maria and Irma was unprecedented. Among other things, the Commission provided about $130 million in extra funding from the Universal Service Fund to assist with the restoration of communications networks in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The Chairman and members of the Hurricane Recovery Task Force visited the islands to see firsthand the devastation, meet with victims, and discuss how the FCC could help with recovery and rebuilding efforts. And next week, the Commission will vote on Chairman Pai’s innovative long-term plan to allocate about $950 million to improve, expand, and harden communications networks in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, including funding to bring 5G to the islands. So while others play political games, the FCC will continue its work to connect everyone in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands with digital opportunity and strengthen the resilience of the islands’ communications networks. —Paul Kirby, [email protected]

MainStory: FCC FederalNews Congress PublicSafety WirelessDeployment BroadbandDeployment PuertoRicoNews

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