FCC votes to push proposal extending support to local telecoms
The Federal Communications Commission voted to move ahead with a proposal to extend certain Universal Service Fund support to eligible mobile and fixed carriers in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands to ensure consumers have access to advanced telecommunications services in the face of hurricanes and other natural disasters.
With the evident effects of Hurricane Fiona, the proposal seeks to build on the Commission’s Bringing Puerto Rico Together Fund and the Connect USVI Fund and continue support for restoration, hardening, and expansion of resilient communications networks on the islands.
Without Commission action, some of the existing support is scheduled to end starting in June 2023.
The Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking seeks comment on a plan providing transitional support for “strengthening and hardening the networks on the islands to withstand storm damage and have redundant capabilities,” for up to 24 months after it ends (through Dec. 31, 2025), or until a long-term mobile funding mechanism is created.
“Last week, I had the opportunity to visit Puerto Rico. It was just a month after Hurricane Fiona wreaked havoc on the island with record rainfall and landslides,” said FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel, in a statement issued after the matter was discussed during the agency’s open meeting Thursday.
“It also left much of Puerto Rico in the dark, with many of its residents stuck without power during and after the storm,” she said. “In times like these, staying connected takes on new urgency.”
“I saw that firsthand, not just during this trip to Puerto Rico, but during a similar trip I took nearly five years ago when I visited after Hurricane María. What strikes me most is that some of the same areas I saw during that last trek to the island were hit again during the most recent storm,” she said.
During her trip, she met with Gov. Pedro Pierluisi, local emergency officials, members of the Puerto Rico Telecommunications Regulatory Board, and providers from across the island to learn more about how communications fared in the wake of this most recent hurricane.
“The message I heard in every meeting was clear: Though the devastation from this most recent storm was real and there is more work to be done, this time around communications networks were more resilient and restoration was more rapid,” she said.
“One big reason for that is during the last three years, carriers have been able to use support from the FCC’s Bringing Puerto Rico Together Fund to build greater resiliency and redundancy in their networks. This fund has helped speed recovery and keep residents connected in the most recent hurricane,” she said. “It is the kind of effort you want to keep going.”
“So, today we adopt a rulemaking to explore how support for mobile and fixed broadband providers in Puerto Rico and the USVI can continue, because restoring, hardening, and expanding communications infrastructure is vital everywhere in this country, the Caribbean included,” she said.
The proposal seeks comment on related conditions for transitional support, including, for example, whether there should be any geographic limitations on where transitional support may be used within a carrier’s service area, and if the support should be limited to expanding 5G networks.
FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks, who hosted an FCC field hearing in Puerto Rico in 2020 on resilient communications networks, said he learned “just how important it was that we ensure that communications networks are always available, particularly to meet public safety needs.”
“So, I’m glad to support this item, which will ensure that transitional support for network resiliency does not lapse before the communications network buildout benchmarks required by the Uniendo a Puerto Rico Fund and Connect USVI Fund are met,” he said. “The alternative is unfathomable.”