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The Fate of Net Neutrality Hinges on the House

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WASHINGTON — A coalition of Puerto Rican advocates, racial- and social-justice organizations, and media and telecommunications experts urged Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai to appoint an independent commission to examine the causes for the communications failures in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria last year.

In a letter delivered to the chairman (PDF) on the one-year anniversary of the storm making landfall in Puerto Rico, groups including the Center for Media Justice, Color Of Change, Collective Action for Puerto Rico, Defend Puerto Rico, Free Press, the National Hispanic Media Coalition and Resilient Just Technologies criticized the brief hurricane-season report the agency released last month.

That report “failed to provide the kind of comprehensive examination that is needed following such a historic tragedy in Puerto Rico,” the coalition wrote. “[We] 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.”

Two recent studies found that somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 people died as a result of Hurricane Maria — potentially surpassing the number of people who died on Sept. 11 and during Hurricane Katrina combined. The coalition’s letter asserts that the lack of a resilient communications infrastructure in Puerto Rico may have contributed significantly to the death toll by leaving people on the island unable to call for help.

The FCC needs to provide an in-depth review of the telecommunications challenges facing Puerto Rico while also developing recommendations on how to avoid such failures in the future. The letter signers called on the FCC to provide this review in both Spanish and English, and urged the agency to convene public hearings in Puerto Rico to enable commissioners to “hear directly from Puerto Ricans on how their lives were impacted by the failure of these communication services.”

Earlier this week, Free Press filed comments at the FCC asking the agency to include Puerto Rico in its broadband-deployment report. Puerto Ricans deserve access to robust data to determine whether broadband is being fully restored across their territory, and to measure the progress of broadband providers receiving FCC funding to accelerate the build-out of communications networks.

In addition, Free Press urged the FCC to abandon its cruel proposal to gut the Lifeline program. This plan would leave more than half a million Puerto Ricans living below the poverty line ineligible to receive the program subsidy for broadband and telephone services.

Free Press’ filing is available here as a PDF.

“It's been a year since Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, and there’s still so much we don’t know about how government and telecom responded to the tragedy,” said Free Press Senior Policy Counsel Carmen Scurato. “Chairman Pai must make good on earlier promises and commit to building resilient networks on the island that will withstand future storms. Doing so is a matter of life and death for the millions of Puerto Ricans who rely on wireless and landline networks to stay in touch with loved ones and contact emergency services during times of need. Puerto Ricans deserve a comprehensive examination that fully explores the causes behind last year’s failures, and that properly evaluates efforts to prevent any future breakdowns.”

“Hurricanes Maria and Irma last year exposed how fragile and neglected Puerto Rico’s communications infrastructure is and how little is being done to preserve Puerto Ricans’ human right to communications,” said Resilient Just Technologies Director Teresa Basilio Gaztambide. “We need to expose, pressure and hold accountable the various actors responsible for this crisis, including the U.S. government and the FCC, telecom companies, colonial elites and the Fiscal Control Board as well as challenge the ongoing colonial relationship that strips Puerto Ricans of their right to self-determination. We also need to support current efforts by Puerto Ricans and their allies engaged in grassroots projects to develop, build and govern decentralized systems that truly serve the needs of the people of Puerto Rico.”

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