FCC Urged to Name Panel to Probe Hurricane Maria Outages

Eighteen advocates for Puerto Rico and racial and social justice and media and telecom experts urged the FCC today to appoint an independent commission to probe the reasons for widespread communications failures in Puerto Rico after it was struck by Hurricane Maria last year.

“As a group of Puerto Rican advocates, racial- and social-justice organizations, and media and telecommunications experts, we call on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to appoint an independent commission to examine the causes for the communications failures in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria last year, and to develop recommendations to avoid such failures in the future,” said a letter filed in PS docket 17-344 and WC docket 18-143. “The ability to communicate is a life and death issue, especially during and after a disaster. But there is still much we do not know about the response of telecom companies and our government. And we also need to know more about the policies and investment decisions made through the years that resulted in a communications network that lacked the resiliency to withstand a major hurricane.

“The 36-page hurricane season report released by the FCC last month attempted to inform the public about the Commission’s actions following the hurricanes that struck the United States last year. But the report failed to provide the kind of comprehensive examination that is needed following such a historic tragedy in Puerto Rico,” the letter added. “We agree with FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who said ‘this slim and long-overdue review fails to capture the gravity of these storms.’”

The report released by the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau detailed a number of planned or recommended steps to improve emergency response and recovery efforts in the wake of last year’s historic Atlantic hurricane season, including promoting the value of the Disaster Information Reporting System (DIRS) and requesting more DIRS data from providers, encouraging backhaul providers to participate in the Wireless Network Resiliency Cooperative Framework and seeking more granular data, improving the ability to verify the availability of commercial wireless services, bolstering engagement with other critical infrastructure sectors, suggesting that industry entities partner with localities on training for emergencies, and recommending the implementation of various best practices (TR Daily, Aug. 24).

“The lack of resilient communications infrastructure in Puerto Rico apparently contributed significantly to the death toll by leaving people on the islands unable to call for help. Recent reports by Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) further confirm the devastating impact that this immediate and extended loss of communications services had on the recovery and rescue efforts. However, those reports do not provide an in-depth review of the telecommunications challenges facing Puerto Rico, or potential solutions. That is analysis the FCC and an independent commission could and should have provided. Additionally, there is scant information in the FEMA, GAO, and FCC reports indicating an affirmative or coordinated effort to maximize the impact of the Uniendo Fund and FEMA’s recovery assets,” today’s letter said.

The parties complained that “the FCC has failed to hold any public hearings in Puerto Rico and hear directly from Puerto Ricans on how their lives were impacted by the failure of these communication services. Bilingual public hearings should play a central role in helping the agency shape policies addressing the critical communications needs of people on the islands.

“The FCC has agreed to provide the phone and cable industry with nearly $750 million in accelerated Universal Service Fund payments to restore service on the island and build a more resilient communications network, but without further investigation it’s extremely difficult to assess how to best spend these funds to ensure that they are providing the maximum benefit to Puerto Ricans,” they added. “Major telecom firms have a long history of making promises to regulators and lawmakers about their intent to provide services to communities of color, rural populations, and other vulnerable communities; but those firms all too often fail to deliver on such promises.”

The letter continued, “Over the past year we have seen examples of telecom executives offering to repair but not guarantee fully restored communications services on the island, or talking only hypothetically about the potential to build a more resilient network in Puerto Rico during their calls with investors. Puerto Ricans deserve a comprehensive examination, from an independent commission, that fully explores the causes for the critical failure of communications infrastructure the hurricane caused, and that properly evaluates efforts to restore and improve service.”

Among those signing onto the letter were the Center for Media Justice, Color of Change, Defend Puerto Rico, Free Press, the National Hispanic Media Coalition, and former FCC Commissioner Gloria Tristani.

In response to today’s letter, Ms. Rosenworcel said in a statement, “The FCC needs to take a serious look at its response to Hurricane Maria.  The agency didn’t establish an independent panel to study the storm and its devastation as it did after Hurricane Katrina.  The agency didn’t hold field hearings to inform efforts to improve network resiliency as it did after Superstorm Sandy.  Instead, the FCC lumped together four of the most destructive hurricanes in recent history and issued a single 38-page report a year after these storms made landfall.   That’s not helpful, not timely, and nothing like the assessment the people of Puerto Rico deserve.” —Paul Kirby, paul.kirby@wolterskluwer.com

Courtesy TRDaily