The recent spate of hurricanes that hit the southeastern U.S., Puerto Rico, and the Caribbean over the last few weeks has placed the Federal Communications Commission in the spotlight after millions of Americans were left without access to cellular, cable, and Internet service.
In the wake of the storms, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican, announced the agency would launch a Hurricane Recovery Task Force as the commission shifts to focusing on longer-term recovery efforts.
"It is critical that we adopt a coordinated and comprehensive approach to support the rebuilding of communications infrastructure and restoration of communications services," Pai said when announcing the panel. "The Hurricane Recovery Task Force will allow us to do just that."
The creation of a formal task force comes after Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria smacked portions of Texas and Florida and devastated Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in August and September. The storms left millions of Americans without power, as well as cellular, cable, and Internet service.
Puerto Rico, however, was hit especially hard by Hurricane Maria late last month. The storm, which hit the island as a Category 4 hurricane, knocked out power for the entire island and destroyed communications infrastructure. As a result, millions of U.S. citizens lacked the ability to reach their families.
As of Oct. 11, nearly 79 percent of cell sites remained out of service, according to the FCC, and just 33.6 percent of cell towers were functioning.
The FCC's response to the hurricanes raised criticisms from FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, who called on Pai to hold field hearings to address network recovery issues in affected areas.
"This agency should hold hearings in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico — where we are in the midst of a humanitarian crisis impacting more than 3 million American citizens — as soon as feasible," Rosenworcel said in a Sept. 26 statement on the FCC's response to the three hurricanes. "There is ample precedent for this approach — it was used in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Katrina. I know from my experience you learn more out on the ground than you do sitting on this dais. I hope this agency has the guts to do this."
But Fred Campbell, former chief of the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau at the FCC and former wireless legal adviser to then-FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, said he expects the new Hurricane Recovery Task Force to serve most of the functions a field hearing would.
"There might be a benefit at the margin to holding field hearings because there are always things you can learn," Campbell, now the director of Tech Knowledge, told the Washington Examiner. "But the damage is pretty extreme and pretty obvious."
Campbell, who worked at the FCC during Hurricane Katrina, said he didn't believe the field hearings conducted in the wake of Hurricane Sandy in 2012 had a major impact, and said such events are "one-off things you do."
By contrast, the establishment of the Hurricane Recovery Task Force will be a persistent and longstanding presence, Campbell said.
"While those things are already happening, having a task force like this can ensure you're coordinated across the commission," Campbell said. "I wouldn't expect the task force to be a sea change in the FCC's approach, but formalizing to allow for approval around the margins."
Campbell said the FCC established an ad hoc committee after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, but suggested that with the new Hurricane Recovery Task Force, Pai is "formalizing something the FCC's been doing since Katrina."
Pai visited Houston after Hurricane Harvey and Florida after Hurricane Irma, and he hopes to travel to Puerto Rico "when conditions permit," a FCC spokesperson told CNN.
The commission also unanimously approved up to $77 million to restore communications networks in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The money, designed to "enable carriers to restore essential communications services as quickly as possible," came from the Universal Service Fund, which provides subsidies to companies that provide communications services in areas where it is costly to do so.
Additionally, the FCC approved an experimental license for Project Loon, from Google's parent company Alphabet, on Oct. 7 to assist in providing emergency cellular service in Puerto Rico.
Project Loon uses balloons that float in the stratosphere to provide Internet service to people in rural or remote areas. With the experimental license from the FCC, Alphabet will "attempt to initiate service in Puerto Rico."
"More than two weeks after Hurricane Maria struck, millions of Puerto Ricans are still without access to much-needed communications services," Pai said when announcing the approval. "That's why we need to take innovative approaches to help restore connectivity on the island. Project Loon is one such approach."
Campbell said approving experimental licenses as the FCC did for Project Loon is just one way the FCC steps in with disaster recovery efforts.
The agency also coordinates with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, he said, to transmit information such as network outages, and has the ability to grant emergency funding to communications companies. Campbell said he anticipates the process for transmitting that information could be formalized with the Hurricane Recovery Task Force.
But he warned calls for the FCC to step in even more could duplicate efforts already under the purview of the Department of Homeland Security.
"They're not FEMA, and they don't really have the authority to be on the ground directing efforts and the like," Campbell said of the FCC. "The FCC plays an important support role. One danger in expanding the FCC's role in these recovery efforts is you start to run into the situation that the Department of Homeland Security was created to avoid. … I just worry about duplicating the efforts."