Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai returned Monday from a two-day trip to Puerto Rico, where he surveyed damage to the island and its infrastructure in the wake of Hurricane Maria.
Pai made similar trips to Texas and Florida after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and assessed the recovery efforts in response to Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island when it hit as a Category 4 storm seven weeks ago.
The powerful hurricane damaged much of Puerto Rico’s infrastructure, leaving most of its residents without power, Internet, and cellular service, and limiting their ability to communicate with family and friends.
According to an FCC status report issued Nov. 7, 47.2 percent of cell sites on the island remain out of service, and 47 of Puerto Rico’s 78 counties have more than 50 percent of cell sites out of service.
During his visit, Pai witnessed the island’s destruction first-hand.
“When you see a huge concrete pole that’s used for stringing power lines bent over 120 degrees by these unprecedented winds, you get a sense of how strong the storm was,” Pai told the Washington Examiner.
8) Notable in this #PuertoRico pic: pole made of *solid concrete* was bent by strong winds. And "Abierto" signs everywhere as shops reopen. pic.twitter.com/753opgzKZc— Ajit Pai (@AjitPaiFCC) November 7, 2017
On his two-day trip, Pai visited the El Yunque National Forest, where he visited a damaged tower that sits atop a mountain. The storm knocked down trees and power lines in the forest, effectively transforming it from a closed canopy forest to an open-air national park, Pai said.
2) Visited @ElYunqueNF to see mountaintop tower. Much damage to rainforest (full canopy pre-#Maria), mudslides, & many power lines down. pic.twitter.com/jYDGuBeVGd— Ajit Pai (@AjitPaiFCC) November 7, 2017
“This was not a run-of-the-mill storm by any means,” he said.
After Hurricane Maria hit, the FCC began taking steps to restore communications networks that had been damaged by the storm.
The FCC unanimously approved up to $77 million for communications networks restoration in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands through its Universal Service Fund, which provides subsidies to companies that provide communications services in areas where it is costly to do so.
The agency also allowed AeroNet, a fixed wireless provider in Puerto Rico, to access 5 GHz spectrum to enable connectivity, and approved emergency assistance to local schools and libraries in Puerto Rico through its E-rate Program, which aims to help schools and libraries obtain affordable broadband.
Pai said he expects additional funding will be needed to repair wired and wireless infrastructure, which will take more time to fix. That funding, he said, could come from the Universal Service Fund.
“To the extent that the Universal Service Fund can be creatively used in order to restore networks, that is something that’s important for us to do,” he said. “The $77 million we accelerated to telecom carriers is a good example of that, trying to think creatively of how to channel that funding to get the biggest bang for the buck.”
Pai said he is also eager to see how private sector companies come up with new ways to address the issues that have arisen in the wake of Hurricane Maria.
The FCC approved an experimental license for Project Loon, from Google’s parent company Alphabet, last month to assist in providing emergency cellular service in Puerto Rico.
Project Loon uses balloons that float in the stratosphere to provide Internet service to rural or remote areas, and with the experimental license from the FCC, Alphabet plans to “attempt to initiate service in Puerto Rico.”
Pai said he didn’t get a chance to meet with representatives from Project Loon when he was in Puerto Rico, but he said he’s open to granting additional experimental licenses to the private sector to “do what they do best: to solve problems.”
As Puerto Rico continues to recover from Hurricane Maria, Pai said the FCC has had staff on the ground who are working closely with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Three days each week, FEMA briefs staff on where service is working on the island and where it isn’t, and Pai said he’s pleased with the how the FCC has coordinated communications recovery efforts.
But Pai also said the “universal message” he heard from broadcast and wireless companies was disappointment related to the closing of the FCC’s field off in San Juan, Puerto Rico, which was shuttered as part of former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s reorganization plan.
“The fact that we didn’t have that capability when the storm struck damaged the ability of the FCC to respond as quickly as we could,” he said. “Being able to have people on the ground once the storm did strike was helpful.”
The FCC has received criticism for its response to Hurricane Maria, including from within the commission over a lack of field hearings.
Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel urged Pai in September to hold field hearings in Puerto Rico, Texas, and Florida to address network-recovery issues.
No field hearings have been scheduled yet, but Pai said he hasn’t ruled them out. He explained that the agency isn’t yet in the state of delivering after-action reports, especially because in Puerto Rico, the FCC is “still in the middle of the action.”
“A substantial number of cell sites are down, a majority of certain areas of the island don’t have power,” he said. “This is a difficult situation where the FCC and FEMA and other agencies including the Puerto Rico Telecommunications Regulatory Board are actively working to get things up and running. Once we have the luxury of reflection, we’ll take a look at that, but I’m still focused on making sure the FCC is doing everything it can at the moment to get things up and running.”
Pai said the agency hasn’t yet determined what its next steps will be given that recovery efforts are still in full swing in Puerto Rico, but he said the creation of the Hurricane Recovery Task Force will enable the FCC to develop best practices moving forward, both in terms of its internal processes as well as its relationship with the private sector.