Puerto Rico wireless carriers embrace possibility of FCC fiscal support until ’25
If the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decides to extend the life of its Uniendo a Puerto Rico and the Connect USVI Fund for two more years beyond its current June 2023 expiration, it could mean more opportunities to continue beefing up networks locally and in the US Virgin Islands, industry officials said.
Earlier this month, FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel said the agency is considering keeping the funds going to help the islands’ wireless networks face future storm damage, as News is my Business reported.
The FCC created the Uniendo a Puerto Rico and the Connect USVI Funds after Hurricanes Irma and María struck the islands in 2017, to help rebuild and harden broadband networks. In the wake of Hurricane Fiona’s strike last month, the agency began contemplating next steps.
“Extending the funds originally allocated to Liberty Mobile Puerto Rico for the second phase of the Uniendo a Puerto Rico Fund would be extremely positive. What the FCC contemplates in its Draft Notice for Proposed Rulemaking dated Oct. 6, 2022, is to create a third interim phase with a duration of two years, which would partially extend the allocation of federal funds until June 2025,” said Naji Khoury, president of Liberty Communications.
“Liberty Mobile Puerto Rico made significant improvements to its network with the funds already allocated in the second phase. This allocation of funds allowed Liberty Mobile Puerto Rico to add batteries and fixed generators to its network, as well as to bury fiber,” he said.
“It is for this reason, among others, that Liberty Mobile Puerto Rico was able to continue operating in the aftermath of Hurricane Fiona. If the FCC creates a third phase for the Uniendo a Puerto Rico Fund it would allow Liberty Mobile Puerto Rico to continue investing in this type of initiative, improving the resiliency of its infrastructure and the performance of its mobile network. This, of course, would result in better service for its consumers,” Khoury added.
The Uniendo a Puerto Rico fund allocations have been done in two phases that began in 2018 and 2019, respectively.
The FCC has so far allocated a total of $97.8 million to Liberty Mobile Puerto Rico for the second phase of the Uniendo a Puerto Rico Fund. Likewise, the FCC assigned nearly $4 million to Liberty Mobile USVI. Both allocations expire in June 2023.
“The FCC’s Draft Notice contemplating the creation of a third phase and, thus, the extension of the allocation of funds, is still extremely preliminary, so it does not break down the final amounts that would be allocated to such companies,” Khoury explained.
“However, while considerable improvements have been made to the mobile networks in Puerto Rico and the USVI, an additional allocation of funds would result in a more robust network and better service for the customers who depend on it,” he said.
As the possibility of extending the life of the funds looms, wireless executives said to be exploring alternatives to prevent service interruptions when power is knocked out.
Equipment such as additional power generators, solar equipment for the towers and further undergrounding of infrastructure are alternatives, Khoury said.
“We’re also exploring other alternatives that can energize the nodes with long-lasting batteries. We have generators at all the sites that allow it and that is a given. But we are also working continuously with preparedness plans, maintenance, technical staff training, supply chain of materials and fuel, just to name a few. Preparing for power shortages is already part of our ongoing work all year round,” he said.
Liberty’s wireless network was operational during the brunt of the storm, with cell towers running with backup power generators where needed throughout the island.
Looking ahead, Khoury said other measures are being considered and/or implemented to manage the lack of power to critical infrastructure.
“For example, a solar energy project has been started in certain offices, the number of generators is being increased, and Fiber to the Home continues to be installed in multiple locations. However, it is important to convey the message that telecommunications equipment operates with power and that these are measures to deal with an emergency, not to replace power service for long periods of time,” he said.
Funds help ‘cushion economic blow’ of storms
Meanwhile, Claro de Puerto Rico President Enrique Ortiz de Montellano welcomed the possibility of an extension of the FCC’s funding sources, saying that money helps cushion the economic blow that severe weather events, such as strong hurricanes, deal to wireless carriers.
“We’re waiting for the FCC to approve the final public order to have a clear and complete picture of the initiative,” Ortiz de Montellano said.
Claro de Puerto Rico has received $55.5 million in funds to be disbursed in 10 years to deliver in six years facilities to provide advanced broadband service (100Mbps download and 25Mbps upload) to 100% of localities in 35 municipalities across the island, he explained.
The amount of funding assigned was based on market participation, he said.
“In keeping with this, Claro continues to invest some $180 million annually to grow and strengthen its networks in Puerto Rico. We’ll be paying attention to the processes and new aid to participate in new allocations in case this happens,” Ortiz de Montellano said.
Hurricane Fiona’s passage “proved that Claro learned its lesson very well after Hurricanes Irma and María. But this recent event once again shows that electric service is essential to keep our facilities operating,” he said.
“If that service is deficient and isn’t available, telecommunications will be affected. Believing that we have 100% facilities with generators isn’t something that is feasible for us. We have 70% of facilities with generators. We’ll also continue to strengthen the capacity of our networks,” Ortiz de Montellano predicted.