Puerto Rico Telephone Co., which does business as Claro Puerto Rico, has asked the Federal Communications Commission to create $200 million emergency Universal Service Fund to help eligible companies restore services in insular areas affected by Hurricanes Irma and María.
In the petition, the carrier tells the FCC that four months since Hurricane María hit Puerto Rico, conditions throughout the territory remain “dire.” While nearly half of the island still lacks access to power, as of Monday, 8 percent of the island’s cell sites remain out of service, according to the latest industry report from the FCC.
About 14 of Puerto Rico’s 78 towns have 20 percent or more of their cell sites down. So far, the majority of restored communications in Puerto Rico are using gasoline-powered generators, some of which have caught fire, while others have died through overuse, the carrier told the regulator in its petition.
“In the the [more than] 20-year history of the Universal Service Fund, there has never been a more urgent need for funding to restore communications services in the face of a humanitarian crisis of epic proportion. Accordingly, PRTC requests that the Commission specifically implement the 1996 Telecommunications Act’s mandate to ensure that consumers across the nation, including those in ‘insular areas,’ have comparable access to telecommunications and information services,” the carrier argued.
“Because none of the Commission’s existing Universal Service Fund mechanisms were designed to address the problems inherent to insular areas, the Commission should establish a $200 million emergency Universal Service Fund for restoration of service in insular areas,” the carrier added.
“This funding should be expedited to carriers in the disaster areas to facilitate the efforts of telecommunications operators in Puerto Rico to rebuild network plant and restore service throughout the affected territory,” it added, proposing that all eligible local carriers be able to dip into the fund.
“PRT/Claro asked the FCC to create a fund under the Universal Service Program [it suggested up to a $200 million fund] to assist in the recovery of Puerto Rico,” said Ileana Molina, spokeswoman for Claro Puerto Rico.
“PRT/Claro took the initiative, but all Eligible Telecommunication Carriers have access to this money. It is noteworthy that it would be new and additional funds,” she added.
As the largest telecom carrier in Puerto Rico, PRTC has experienced catastrophic damage to its infrastructure. Of its nearly 800 cell sites that are currently operational, more than 60 percent of them rely exclusively on backup power to sustain operations. The carrier said recovery has been challenging because of the lack of power, limited access to remote areas of the island, and recurring cutting of displaced fiber facilities and theft of copper wires.
Finally, it said it lacks the financial resources to rebuild its infrastructure. Facilities built with some $31.5 million the FCC granted PRT through its Connect America Fund to deploy broadband services to unserved areas have been almost completely destroyed, the carrier confirmed.
The carrier has also granted “tens of millions of dollars” to date in service disruption credits to customers, and it will continue to do so until service is fully restored.
In October 2017, the FCC released an order making up to $76.9 million immediately available for restoration of networks in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, but carriers need additional financial assistance targeted specifically at restoration of services.
PRT/Claro suggested that the emergency funding be made available monthly on a declining basis of $80 million, $60 million, $40 million, and $20 million over the next four months.