FCC Chairman Ajit Pai today announced the establishment of an internal Hurricane Recovery Task Force to support restoration efforts in the wake of three recent hurricanes, with a particular focus on Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The announcement came as Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D., N.J.), ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, urged Mr. Pai today to initiate “a Commission-level review of the resiliency of our nation’s networks and the effect of the Wireless Network Resiliency Cooperative Framework following restoration efforts” and hold field hearings, echoing a call by Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel.
“As we shift from short-term incident management to a longer-term recovery phase, it makes sense to adjust the structure of the FCC’s response,” Mr. Pai said in a statement. “In the weeks and months to come, the Commission will be confronting a wide range of storm-related issues that fall within the jurisdiction of numerous bureaus and offices. It is critical that we adopt a coordinated and comprehensive approach to support the rebuilding of communications infrastructure and restoration of communications services. The Hurricane Recovery Task Force will allow us to do just that.”
Michael Carowitz, special counsel to Mr. Pai, will chair the task force, which will include representatives of various bureaus and offices.
In response to Mr. Pai’s announcement, Commissioner Rosenworcel said, “I welcome the news that the Commission is forming a Hurricane Recovery Task Force. I appreciate that the Chairman has listened to my recommendations and decided to put in place a broader effort to review the scale and scope of the damage done to essential communications infrastructure this hurricane season. We need to understand what went wrong, what went right, and how we can be better prepared in the future. I look forward to the report that results from this effort and sincerely hope it includes on the ground research and Commission hearings.”
The news release on the task force did not mention a report. Asked if the task force plans to prepare a report or hold hearings, an FCC spokeswoman told TR Daily that its “immediate focus will be on coordinating Commission action to assist with the rebuilding of communications networks and restoring communications services. Additional actions will be determined by the task force after it meets.”
Ms. Rosenworcel has expressed frustration that her suggestions for a Commission-level report on the hurricanes and the impact on communications networks and field hearings haven’t been accepted.
Last month, Mr. Pai told reporters that for now, the agency is “focused on response and recovery,” but that later field hearings could be discussed (TR Daily, Sept. 26). In a statement this week on an order approving advances from the Connect America Fund to help eligible telecommunications carriers (ETCs) rebuild and repair facilities in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands (TR Daily, Oct. 4), Mr. Pai said, “I look forward to taking additional action in the near future to help those in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands recover from this terrible storm. Because what’s needed to help the people of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands right now is action, not a hearing or a report.”
In her statement on that order, Ms. Rosenworcel said, “The road to recovery is long. That is why I have called on this Commission to commit to both hold hearings as soon as feasible and issue a full report on this hurricane season and its impact on communications. The Commission took similar action following Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy. It boggles my mind that we cannot commit to the same course here. We owe this not only to the people who have been impacted by this season’s storms but to every one of us so we are better prepared for the next time that extreme weather puts our networks to the test. Because one thing is for sure — Mother Nature’s wrath is sure to visit us again.”
In his letter to Mr. Pai today, Mr. Pallone said that “the FCC has an obligation to review the state of our communications systems, the resilience of our 911 systems, and whether the [Wireless Network Resiliency] Framework lives up to its potential. As part of this general review, the FCC should make use of the Framework’s data to isolate root causes of network outages. Policymakers need a better appreciation of which methods have worked and which have not to ensure we improve our future restoration efforts. Such an analysis would pay dividends.”
He noted, for example, that data reported to the FCC indicate that cell site outages spiked on the third day following Hurricane Harvey, which he said appears consistent with complaints about the difficulty companies have keeping backup generators running without priority access to disaster zones.
“A Commission-level evaluation will also help inform Congress and public safety officials about other places where we need to improve,” Mr. Pallone added. “For instance, following Hurricane Irma’s landfall in Florida, Senators [Bill] Nelson [D., Fla.] and [Marco] Rubio [R., Fla.] used data from the Framework to identify where communications systems were down, allowing them to request that the Federal Emergency Management Agency prioritize efforts in those areas. Additionally, I have been told that public safety officials have used the data provide by the Framework to help them assess the situation in their jurisdictions during disasters. On the other hand, I have also heard that some officials are unaware of these data. The FCC should therefore assess whether the Commission is doing enough to make sure local officials are aware and taking advantage of the data made public under the Framework.”
Mr. Pallone also asked the FCC to “include an analysis of the effect of these disasters on 911 infrastructure.”— Paul Kirby, firstname.lastname@example.org