Despite misgivings expressed by more than one Commissioner, the FCC today unanimously ordered the allocation of nearly a billion dollars in combined support for fixed and mobile broadband service in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, intended to restore, expand, and improve the resiliency of broadband facilities.
Commissioner Mike O’Rielly, who along with his fellow Republican Commissioners and Democratic Commissioner Geoffrey Starks voted to approve the item, expressed concern about the order’s overbuilding exception, its designation of a single-round auction, and its mandate for Disaster Information Reporting System (DIRS) reporting.
Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who voted to concur rather than approve, called for more mandated reporting, greater focus on network resiliency, and improved Commission data on where assistance is needed and how it is used.
The $950 million in funding provided by the report and order on reconsideration adopted by the Commission in WC dockets 18-143, 10-90, and 14-58 at its meeting today follows about $130 million in funding provided over the past two years since hurricanes Irma and Maria struck the Caribbean, the Commission noted in a press release.
The funding will be distributed through the Uniendo a Puerto Rico Fund and the Connect USVI Fund established by the FCC last year (TR Daily, May 29). Specifically, in Puerto Rico, more than $500 million will be allocated in fixed broadband support over 10 years and more than $250 million in mobile broadband support will be allocated over three years; and in the U.S. Virgin Islands, more than $180 million in fixed broadband support will be allocated over 10 years and $4 million in mobile broadband support will be allocated over three years.
Fixed broadband support will be allocated to bids awarded the lowest scores in a single-round auction, with points awarded in a 270-point scoring system in three categories: price per location served (up to 100 points, network performance (speed and latency) (up to 90 points), and network resiliency and redundancy (up to 80 points) (TR Daily, Sept. 5).
During a press conference following today’s meeting, Wireline Competition Bureau staff said that the point system had been revised since the original draft order to allow hardened, composite poles to receive a lower score in the same range as fixed wireless, satellite, or microwave backhaul facilities (40 to 60 points), rather than the maximum (worst) score of 80 points, as originally proposed.
Mobile broadband support will be awarded to mobile service providers that were offering service in the territories before the 2017 hurricanes.
The text of the order was not yet available at TR Daily’s news deadline.
Speaking before the vote on the item, Commissioner O’Rielly said that it was “well-meaning” despite his stated concerns. “I’ll be carefully watching the outcome of the competitive bidding process and I will vote to approve,” he added.
In his separate statement, Commissioner Brendan Carr detailed the efforts of Roberto Mussenden, who “has worked here at the FCC on public safety issues for more than 20 years,” in the Commission’s on-site disaster response efforts, and commended the “broader and unprecedented FCC response to the hurricanes that [devastated] Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.”
He added, “FCC funding was a key part of many of these efforts. In the wake of the storm, we made available $77 million in support for the immediate restoration of communications networks. We also established the Uniendo a Puerto Rico and Connect USVI Funds, through which we have already made available an additional $64 million in support for restoration.
“Today, we take the next step in promoting a sustainable and long-term recovery effort. We vote to make nearly $950 million in additional funding available, with an eye toward funding resilient networks that are better able to withstand future storms. And on this score, I want to thank my colleagues for agreeing to edits that create incentives for carriers to place any new aerial lines on hardened, composite poles, which will help ensure that we have an even more robust network,” Commissioner Carr added.
After thanking the work of Commission staff on today’s item and confirming his support for it, Commissioner Carr said, “There are some, however, for which none of this really matters,” and who would rather “use this proceeding in an effort to try to score partisan political points.”
In her statement, Commissioner Rosenworcel detailed her own early 2018 observations of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria, and said that “today’s decision is encouraging. It provides more than $900 million to improve, expand, and harden broadband networks in communities devastated by Hurricane Maria and its accompanying storms. I support the outcome because it refashions universal service support for communications in Villa Calma, all of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, in light of the damage that was suffered during this storm.
“But I concur because this is simply not how I would have structured our response,” she added, explaining her concerns.
“At the outset, in the two years since Hurricane Maria made landfall, the FCC has spent over $100 million in universal service funds in an effort to boost the restoration of communications on Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. However, comb through the text of this decision, and it’s apparent the FCC does not have an honest picture of where those funds were even spent and what the current state of communications facilities looks like on the ground. We should know with precision what was spent and where. And we should fashion what we do today around all of that information. But we do not. That’s regrettable. It’s an invitation for waste because it fails to ensure we are directing funding to areas with the greatest need,” Commissioner Rosenworcel said.
“Now looking forward, I also believe we need to have a better playbook for disaster. Because the hard truth is that Hurricane Maria will not be the last extreme weather [event] to wreak havoc on communications infrastructure. It’s time for the FCC to develop a consistent and reliable approach to ensuring the resiliency of networks in disaster,” she added.
Commissioner Rosenworcel made three recommendations for “a better disaster playbook.”
“First, every weather event causing significant damage to communications should be the subject of a timely report from the FCC. It should be supported by field hearings—just as was done following Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy. But on this score, our approach to Hurricane Maria fell short. As I said at the start, the FCC refused to hold a single field hearing. It issued a slim report summarizing damage a year after the storm took place. We owe communities a timely and comprehensive investigation of what went right, what went wrong, and how we can be better prepared in disaster.
“Second, the FCC must improve its situational awareness regarding communications outages. It’s hard to believe, but the FCC’s Network Outage Reporting System does not require carriers to report on disruptions or outages involving broadband service. That means if the infrastructure that supports our digital world and so much of modern life goes down, the FCC will not have a full picture of the problem. That’s crazy. The expert agency with responsibility for our nation’s communications has no mandatory reporting for what broadband was cut off and when. That means that it has no real ability to study patterns of failures and develop policies to help keep our networks up and running. Now a proposal to address this hole in our reporting systems has been pending for three years. It’s time to take action and fix it.
“Third, we need to do more to ensure our networks are resilient. A good place to start is with the Wireless Resiliency Framework, which was an outgrowth of Congressman Pallone’s work to improve networks in disaster following Superstorm Sandy. Last year, the Government Accountability Office reviewed FCC efforts pursuant to this framework and concluded that we need to do more to promote awareness, develop measurable objectives, and monitor outcomes to help ensure compliance. In response, the FCC has sought comment on improvements to the framework on four separate occasions. Enough. We don’t need more comments, we need enforceable commitments,” Commissioner Rosenworcel said.
She added that the FCC’s “work on wireless resiliency should not be static. Our networks are changing and our thinking should evolve, too. With the advent of 5G wireless service, we are seeing large-scale small cell deployment. That means our old way of thinking about fuel, back-up power, and tracking the percentage of cell sites out of service after a disaster requires a revamp. While virtualizing our networks might mean new self-help and self-healing capabilities, it also introduces new challenges for reliability. This is why our next infrastructure proceeding needs to be about updating our wireless resiliency policies and frameworks for the 5G era. We should get started now—and not wait for the next disaster.
“Finally, today’s order is eerily silent on the larger network security and supply chain discussion that is happening right now. So let me put it in plain terms: none of the universal service funding we authorize today should be spent on the purchase of network equipment that could raise national security concerns. I’m absolutely mystified that this was not made a clear condition of the network funding offered today, especially because there is an active United States military presence on Puerto Rico, that includes military installations. The FCC should have made this prohibition clear in this decision and it should not wait another day to resolve the outstanding rulemaking we have on supply chain matters more broadly,” she continued.
“I appreciate the work that went into today’s decision and I am hopeful, despite my concerns, that it will mean real progress for network development in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. I concur,” Commissioner Rosenworcel concluded.
Commissioner Starks said, “In order to ensure that people in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands have the same connectivity and opportunity as any other American, communications networks have to be rebuilt stronger, not just to provide high-quality internet service, but also to have strength and redundancy as an essential part of their design to be sure that they withstand future storms. Today’s order sets up a process for providing funding to fixed and mobile service providers operating in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to support them in that rebuilding and strengthening of their networks. This support will be essential to restoring networks to provide the kind of service that the people of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands demand and deserve, and that the Communications Act commands us to make sure is available.”
He added, “This support recognizes the unique and ongoing reconstruction and restoration needs that exist in Puerto Rico and in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and I was glad that the Commission recognized these unique needs and the unique conditions in Puerto Rico in two orders adopted earlier this year addressing a forbearance petition related to wired network loops and transport links. In these orders, the Commission made changes to the way some fixed voice and broadband provider’s networks are regulated. But, the Commission agreed with my requests to hold off on implementing these orders in Puerto Rico so that carriers there can focus on rebuilding rather than on regulatory changes.
“Recognizing that recovery is ongoing in Puerto Rico and in the U.S. Virgin Islands and establishing a funding process to support strengthening networks, as today’s order does, will provide important and necessary help to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. I support this order and I thank the staff of the Wireline Competition Bureau for their hard work in preparing it,” Commissioner Starks concluded.
Chairman Ajit Pai also spoke of the facilities damage he saw during visits to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in the wake of the 2017 hurricanes.
“The road to recovery in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands has been long. I saw that in Utuado, Puerto Rico, where utility poles were broken like matchsticks and fiber lines severed as easily as spider webs. I saw it in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where I saw the utterly destroyed radio and television station WTJX. But since then, the good news with respect to communications is that service has been largely restored,” the Chairman said.
“However, the FCC’s work isn’t done. Now we need to and will execute a long-term strategy to improve, expand, and harden broadband networks on the islands, for at least two reasons. First, hurricanes are an annual misfortune, and we know that Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands will be hit again by severe storms. So we need hardened communications networks that can withstand hurricanes and will continue serving Americans living in the territories when they need them the most,” he continued.
“Second, we need to close the digital divide in the territories. Simply put, everyone in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands who wants it should have high-speed Internet access and the economic, health care, educational, and civic services it enables. Digital opportunity is not a value limited to the mainland.
“To execute this long-term strategy, today we allocate almost a billion dollars in funding from the USF to deploy improved, expanded, and hardened fixed and mobile broadband networks in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. On the fixed side, we implement a balanced approach for awarding support that will reward carriers that will provide high-quality service in a cost-efficient manner and help build resilient networks. On the mobile side, for the first time ever, we specifically set aside USF funding to support 5G deployment. This was important to me because I don’t want Puerto Ricans and U.S. Virgin Islanders to be left behind when it comes to the next generation of wireless connectivity and the enormous potential it holds,” Chairman Pai said.
He quoted from a letter of support for the action he received from Congresswoman Jenniffer González-Colón (R., P.R.).
Asked during a press conference after the meeting whether he would act on Commissioner Rosenworcel’s call for field hearings on disaster recovery in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, Chairman Pai did not respond directly, emphasizing instead the “extensive” visits to the Caribbean territories by FCC officials. —Lynn Stanton, [email protected]
MainStory: FederalNews PuertoRicoNews VirginIslandsNews UniversalServiceLifeline
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