Activists to FCC: Investigate Maria’s Impact on Puerto Rico’s Telecom Infrastructure

By Sameer Rao Sep 21, 2018

A coalition of Puerto Rican, digital and racial justice activists marked one year since Hurricane Maria‘s landfall yesterday (September 20) by demanding the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) honestly address how the storm devastated the commonwealth’s communications infrastructure.

"The ability to communicate is a life and death issue, especially during and after a disaster," reads the letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai from Defend Puerto Rico, Free Press, the Center for Media Justice and activist Rosa Clemente among others. "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 letter references a report about the FCC’s hurricane season response plan published in August. The coalition said the agency, which dedicated a little over two of 36 pages to Maria’s impact, "failed to provide the kind of comprehensive examination that is needed following such a historic tragedy in Puerto Rico."

"The lack of resilient communications infrastructure in Puerto Rico apparently contributed significantly to the death toll by leaving people on the island unable to call for help," the letter continues. "Recent reports by [the] 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."

Advocates went on to admonish Pai (a former lawyer for Verizon) for offering $750 million to communications companies to repair the island’s broken infrastructure without requiring transparency about how they will do so.

This letter comes three days after Free Press implored the agency to not eliminate the Lifeline program, which subsidizes many Puerto Ricans and other impoverished citizens’ telecommunications services.