Amid pointed barbs among some of the Commissioners, the FCC Thursday approved $950 million to help carriers serving Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands improve, expand and harden their communications networks. Hurricanes Maria and Irma devastated the islands in 2017.
During the vote, Commissioner Brendan Carr said the storm, “pulled out 1,000-foot communications towers.”
The Commission cut through red tape to help recovery efforts. Mobile providers recovered quickly, he noted, while one wireline provider was back up and running three months later.
“But there are some for whom this doesn’t matter,” because they want “to use this proceeding to score partisan political points,” he said, without naming Rosenworcel specifically.
Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who traveled to the islands after the hurricanes, said the damage to the islands was so severe it may never be fully understood. She supported the item but would have structured the response differently. The FCC has spent over $100,000 in Universal Service Funds to help the islands recover, but “it does not have a clear picture of what was spent and where. We should fashion what we do today around all of that information. But we do not. That’s regrettable. It’s an invitation for waste because it fails to ensure we’re directing funding to areas with the greatest need,” said Rosenworcel.
She also said the item is silent on the larger network security and supply chain issue currently being discussed (see first story.) Rosenworcel continued, “None of the Universal Service Funding we authorize should be spent on the purchase of network equipment that could raise national security concerns. I’m absolutely mystified this was not made a clear condition of the network funding offered today, especially because there’s an active United States military presence on Puerto Rico and that includes military installations.”
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, too, traveled to the islands to see hurricane damage. “In Puerto Rico, I saw utility poles broken like matchsticks,” he said. Now is the time to close the digital divide there, according to the Chairman. Pai said he was grateful for the support, “from my Commissioners who are very helpful in providing suggestions in improving today’s item, with the exclusion of suggestions presented at the dais for the first time today,” he said without singling out Rosenworcel.
The FCC voted to allocate more than $500 million over ten years in fixed broadband support and more than $250 million over three years in mobile broadband support. In the U.S. Virgin Islands, the agency allocated more than $180 million over ten years in support for fixed networks, and $4 million over three years for mobile networks.
Fixed broadband support will be awarded through a competitive process. Carriers will bid to serve every location in each covered area with up-to-1-gigabit speeds. Applications will be scored based on price per location served, network performance (speed and latency), and network resiliency and redundancy. Support for mobile services will be awarded to carriers that were offering service before the hurricanes in order to expand and harden 4G LTE networks and deploy 5G networks.
By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief
September 30, 2019
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