Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai proposed an order Tuesday that that would enable carriers in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to use their Universal Service Fund allocations to more quickly rebuild networks.
The order would make available up to $76.9 million of funding to repair wireline and wireless communication networks and restore communications services, he said.
“Specifically, I am proposing to allow carriers to use money provided through the USF’s high-cost program to repair and restore communications networks throughout Puerto Rico and the USVI,” he said.
“I am also proposing that we give carriers operating in these territories the option of receiving USF funding in advance,” he added. “Instead of receiving a standard monthly payment, carriers could elect this month to receive seven months’ worth of funding immediately in order to expedite repair and restoration efforts.”
In normal times, the USF provides federal subsidies to companies to make communications services (voice and Internet) more accessible and affordable in places where the cost of providing service is high. Typically, companies get those subsidies on a month-by-month basis.
The order is slated to go to a vote on Oct. 24, when it must receive the majority vote from all of the FCC’s commissioners to move forward.
“I look forward to working with my colleagues on this Order. Given the urgent situation in Puerto Rico and the USVI, I am asking Commissioners to approve it as soon as possible. If this proposal has not been adopted by the FCC’s Oct. 24 meeting, we will vote on it then,” he confirmed.
Sandra Torres, president of the Puerto Rico Telecommunications Regulatory Board said Tuesday the agency would be sending a letter to the FCC to support the proposed order.
“It’s extremely necessary at this time because the cost of recovery and infrastructure is very high,” she told this media outlet.
While the order stipulates an advance in USF funds, Torres — who has been in constant communication with Pai since before Hurricane María tore through the islands less than two weeks ago — said she would be requesting “a little more” over the amount available.
“The Board would support the companies so they can get the advance and any additional amount. But that would be at the FCC’s discretion. We can ask for the order to be modified or done differently, but that’s the FCC’s decision as well,” she said, confirming that if the funding is granted in advance, then Puerto Rico companies would not have access to any money next year.
“But we have the need now,” she said.
As of Tuesday, Puerto Rico’s telecom companies had restored 43.5 percent of wireless services, with the recovery of 365 antenna towers, Torres said.
The Board chief also confirmed that eight of 15 “Cell on Wheels” units have already been deployed throughout the island — in Aguadilla, Arecibo, Humacao, Luquillo, and Ponce — providing signal to a combined 166,733 customers.