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WASHINGTON — On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission voted unanimously to approve an order requiring cable, telephone, wireless and Voice over Internet Protocol (“VoIP”) providers to report their operational status during emergencies and other crises. The order establishes obligations for these carriers to report this information using the agency’s Disaster Information Reporting System (“DIRS”), which previously was a voluntary information-collection tool.

The FCC’s decision did not require broadcasters, satellite providers and broadband-internet providers to make mandatory reports of this kind, but it sought further input on whether it should extend these mandates to those kinds of communications providers as well.

In 2017, Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated Puerto Rico and led to the longest communications blackout in U.S. history, contributing to the massive death toll and destruction. Since then, Free Press has worked with Puerto Rican activists and allies to call on the FCC and other federal agencies to improve the accountability, resiliency and reliability of vital communications networks in Puerto Rico and throughout the rest of the United States.

Free Press Senior Advisor for Reparative Policy and Programs Joseph Torres said:

“The FCC’s order is a critical step in holding companies accountable to prevent the kinds of tragedies that took place in Puerto Rico in 2017. Since Chairwoman Rosenworcel took the reins at the agency, the FCC has been improving its processes for making carriers responsive and keeping networks operational in disaster-impacted areas. Commissioner Starks has been a champion for network resiliency too, and in her brief tenure Commissioner Gomez has already highlighted the critical need to better serve Spanish-speaking populations in Puerto Rico and elsewhere. It’s also encouraging to see Republican Commissioners Carr and Simington support this order.

“While our federal government and the FCC have not yet fully addressed the many factors that contributed to the collapse of Puerto Rico’s communications networks and the historic death toll following the 2017 hurricanes, decisions like today’s will make lifesaving information more widely available to everyone. That includes the people and families who need that information most, as well as the first responders and local governments adapting to storms, wildfires and other crises.

“Free Press has repeatedly called attention to the critical need to investigate the roots of such communications-network collapses. The FCC and other relevant agencies must take steps to prevent them and to require faster restoration of service. In light of the ever-worsening climate crisis, our government needs to do much more to protect communities and prevent prolonged outages.

“While today’s decision is a good one, the fact that it doesn’t extend to internet outages shows once again the critical need for the FCC to reclaim its rightful authority over broadband. The agency has a separate proceeding underway right now to restore Title II, and to once again treat broadband like the essential telecommunications service it is. It’s unfortunate that we even have to wait for that, all due to the Trump FCC’s abdication of its congressionally granted authority and responsibility to make sure modern networks are available to everyone. But the Biden FCC is working to undo the damage caused by its Trump-era predecessors’ legal games, and by their tragic policy mistakes when it comes to broadband classification.”

Background: Free Press participated in the FCC rulemaking that led to today’s decision, calling for the steps the agency took to improve network-outage reporting and information available to impacted communities during emergencies. This advocacy built on several years of work with Puerto Rican allies to hold the FCC and the federal government accountable. This work included a groundbreaking 2019 report documenting the Trump FCC’s shortcomings in the wake of the 2017 storms, and calls for lawmakers to guard against future storm-related failures. Free Press Action also testified before Congress in 2020, urging the FCC to investigate all factors that contributed to the historic and tragic communications blackout.

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