Puerto Rico not only experienced an island-wide power outage, but a massive communications blackout: Over 95 percent of cell sites were out of service. Two days after landfall, just six of 185 radio stations were back on the air and not a single television station was broadcasting.
Access to communication services remains essential to Puerto Rico’s rebuilding and recovery efforts. But the inefficiency and neglect of both the federal government and service providers continue to hinder many Puerto Ricans’ ability to connect to communications networks.
As the expert agency on communications, the FCC tracked and then published 182 days’ worth of outage reports — the longest on record for any U.S. disaster-recovery effort — on the status of communications networks in Puerto Rico. It provided support to FEMA and established a Hurricane Response Task Force. The FCC eased the burden on broadcasters, Lifeline providers and other regulated entities by issuing waivers and extensions on regular filing requirements, and it advanced $76.9 million in Universal Service Funds to them for immediate recovery efforts. The Commission also committed to providing an additional $750 million over the course of 10 years to restore damaged communications networks.
These efforts may sound impressive, but they fall far short. The FCC needs to do much more to ensure that every Puerto Rican has reliable and affordable access to communications. And the agency must apply its expertise to the full extent necessary to prevent a complete communications blackout like this from happening ever again.
Here’s a look back at our Puerto Rico work and what’s to come.
In October 2017, a month after the storms, Free Press joined a letter commending the FCC for providing funds to restore communications services in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. That letter urged the agency to implement additional measures to swiftly restore communications.
But the pace of recovery was excruciatingly slow: By December 2017, only five out of 107 television stations were back on the air, two out of every three radio stations were still out of service, and cable and landline phone service were, in the FCC’s own words, “generally non-existent.”
The FCC’s public-safety bureau initiated an inquiry into the “resiliency of the communications infrastructure, the effectiveness of emergency communications, and government and industry responses to the 2017 hurricane season.” Free Press recognized that, to make that inquiry meaningful, Puerto Ricans needed to be given the opportunity to share their experiences and to ensure that they had a voice in the restoration and strengthening of communication services.
After the Commission rebuffed our pleas to hold public hearings on the island, we launched a story-collection tool asking about Hurricane Maria’s impact on communications services in Puerto Rico. We heard about the challenges individuals faced when accessing communications, and what could be done to prevent this kind of communications crisis from recurring in the future.
Here’s a story Maritza Stanchich of San Juan shared last January:
“For me, not having any cellphone connection or access to internet in the immediate aftermath of the storm was worse than not having electricity or water service. We had little idea what had happened in the rest of the country, as only one radio station was left operating ...
“In addition, I knew personally of someone living nearby who contracted potentially life-threatening leptospirosis but could not seek medical attention from the hospital military ship in port because doing so required a referral, yet there was no way to call or reach his doctors for one.”
In April, we filed joint comments with the National Hispanic Media Coalition in the FCC’s inquiry, highlighting stories like this one and calling the agency out for failing to engage with the Puerto Rican people or hold field hearings, refusing to publish key documents in Spanish, failing to be transparent about the work of the Hurricane Recovery Task Force, and proposing to gut the Lifeline program, which would disconnect a significant number of Puerto Ricans still reeling from the hurricane season.
In late August, the FCC released a final Hurricane Response Report based on its inquiry and closed the docket. Its report was a paltry 36 pages and failed to reflect the gravity of one of the most catastrophic communications crises and one of the deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history.
In September, we filed comments calling on the FCC to gather more complete and accurate data to better coordinate the work needed to build resilient networks and disburse funds effectively. We urged the FCC to “conduct a deep and thorough analysis of its current policies, reports and proposed rulemaking proceedings as a means to address the resiliency of communications networks.”
Rather than write off the islands’ communications outages and slow recovery, the FCC should include Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in its annual broadband report — and have an independent commission supplement this with data, including a detailed account of how nearly every network failed after the hurricanes.
With a data-driven analysis, the agency can form an accurate picture of the state of broadband in impacted areas and determine recovery needs. Additionally, collecting accurate data about the status of communications networks would help decision-makers pinpoint how to use the $750 million the FCC has promised.
Our last set of comments also criticized the FCC’s August report for failing to provide Spanish translations of every important document associated with Puerto Rico’s recovery, and failing to consistently provide non-English outreach for other disasters.
On Sept. 20, the one-year anniversary of Maria’s landfall, we were part of a coalition of Puerto Rican advocates, racial- and social-justice organizations, and other media and telecommunications experts that urged Chairman Pai to appoint an independent commission to conduct a comprehensive study of the communications blackout.
Puerto Ricans deserve better. And they deserve answers. Only an independent commission can fully uncover the causes for the critical failure of communications that Hurricanes Irma and Maria caused — and allow the FCC and the public to properly evaluate efforts to restore service and build more resilient networks.
On the anniversary, we also reflected with allies in a Facebook Live discussion on the impact of Maria and the future of communications in Puerto Rico. Our discussion exposed the pain many Puerto Ricans still grapple with but also revealed the inspiring resiliency of the Puerto Rican people and a message of healing and hope.
A year after the hurricanes, it’s clear that the FCC can and must do more to directly engage and seek input from the Puerto Rican people. This is necessary to ensure the agency’s policies reflect the needs of those most impacted.
Filings and letters are important, but even they are just a beginning. We will continue to advocate for Puerto Rico and its people, and call for their voices to be heard. In October a delegation of Free Press staffers will visit Puerto Rico to hear directly from people there about how the loss of communications has impacted them — and to continue the process of recovery, rebuilding and healing.
Help us ramp up the pressure on the FCC: Urge the agency to appoint an independent commission to investigate the communications crisis in Puerto Rico.