House Democrats have called for a Government Accountability Office investigation of communications failures in U.S. territories following Hurricane Maria in September 2017, including how the FCC responded to the problems in Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands, and how it is tracking spending of new funds it freed up to make sure they are being "used as intended."
The FCC voted just last week to allocate $950 million in fixed and mobile high-cost universal service funds to "to expand, improve, and harden communications networks in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands."
The Pai FCC has been nothing if not focused on preventing waste, fraud and abuse in government programs, sometimes to the chagrin of some House Democrats.
House Energy & Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), in a letter to the GAO, also asked whether the FCC had "adequately responded to the communications problems in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands following Hurricane Maria?" and to the extent it did something, "were the actions timely or could the FCC have acted more quickly?"
Pallone points out that 95% of cell sites were down in Puerto Rico after the hurricane and a month later that figure was still 55%. A majority of cable and wireline services were also unavailable. Pallone conceded those communications failures were primarily power failures given the widespread lack of access to electricity.
Pallone said communications services are never more vital than in times of disaster so victims can get emergency information on food, water and shelter, so he wants to know what the government can do better.
"The communications network failures in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands were deeply detrimental to their residents, and may have even caused additional deaths in Puerto Rico,” he wrote. “Ensuring the resiliency and reliability of communications networks in the United States has been a top priority of mine. To prevent similar failures in the future, it is critical that we understand what happened during the hurricane and its aftermath, and what could be improved.”
“The FCC’s response to Hurricanes Maria and Irma was unprecedented," said an FCC spokesperson asked to comment about the request for the GAO to investigate. "For example, after the storm, we 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. We also granted over 850 requests for Special Temporary Authority to expedite the restoration of communications services. And just last week, the FCC adopted on a bipartisan basis Chairman Pai’s long-term strategy to invest nearly $1 billion to improve, expand, and harden broadband networks in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“The FCC will continue to work with leaders such as U.S. Representative Jennifer González-Colón of Puerto Rico, Sandra Torres López of the Negociado de Telecomunicaciones de Puerto Rico, the territory’s FCC counterpart, Alexandra Fernández Navarro of the Junta Reglamentadora de Servicio Público, and John Clendenin of the Public Service Commission of the U.S. Virgin Islands to connect everyone in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands with digital opportunity and strengthen the resilience of the islands’ communications networks.”
Following a May report from Free Press slamming the FCC response, a report Pallone cited, an FCC spokesperson had said: "FCC staff and senior leadership have spent significant time working with local leaders to do everything we can to help in the recovery, resiliency, and eventually improvement of communications services for these hard-hit Americans.”
In February 2018, Pai and the FCC got a bipartisan pat on the back for the commission's hurricane response in Puerto Rico a letter from Florida Sens. Marco Rubio (R) and Bill Nelson (D). which included an exhortation to keep up the good work.
Following a trip to the hurricane-ravaged areas in 2017, Pai told Multichannel News in an exclusive interview that he anticipated trying to use USF money to help rebuild communications networks.
All providers, fixed and mobile, getting support under the $950 million allocation will have to have a disaster preparation and response plan, and will be required to report to the FCC on the status of those networks in emergencies.
It is the second tranche of funding as part of the FCC's Uniendo, a Puerto Rico Fund and Connect USVI Funds and is on top of the $130 million extra funding the FCC has provided for hurricane-damaged networks since 2017. The money is coming out of the "frozen support" PR and VI already get from the high-cost fund, plus some more to make sure the program is successful. That extra will also come from the high-cost fund.