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FCC Gives USVI and PR $64 Million To Repair Communications Networks After Storms

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WASHINGTON — Eight months after hurricanes Maria and Irma, large swaths of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands still don’t have reliable internet access and phone service—denying the Americans that live there a crucial life line as the islands continue their recoveries from the storms.

Of the more than 4,600 people who according to Harvard researchers have died in Puerto Rico since last summer as a consequence of Maria, one third of them perished because of delays in receiving medical care—often because they couldn’t contact medical providers or access information about where to get help.

Puerto Rico’s electric utility has restored service to about 97 percent of island, and cell service has largely returned, too. Still, life is barely back to normal. With electricity blackouts, spotty service, and cell sites still down throughout the island, it’s hard to get back to business and sometimes even communicate, a major problem not only for commerce but for hospitals and emergency service workers, too. That would seem to make an announcement from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Tuesday welcome news.

The agency said it plans to grantnearly $900 million over the next 10 years to phone and internet companies operating in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to help rebuild communications networks there, funds that include an immediate infusion of $64 million for phone and internet carriers. On top of that, the FCC said it would excuse a $65.8 million advance it gave to phone and internet providers in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands last October to rebuild their networks.

The FCC has granted the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico $64 million in immediate, additional funding to accelerate the restoration of the territories’ communications networks that were damaged and destroyed during the 2017 hurricane season, according to Delegate Stacey Plaskett’s office.

In a prepared statement, Plaskett said the money would assist local private telecommunication providers with their restoration efforts.

“Today’s action by the FCC represents a positive step toward rebuilding a smarter, more efficient and resilient Virgin Islands and is another example of the federal government responding to our requests to invest meaningful resources in rebuilding the territory to 21st century standards. Breakdowns in our telecommunications proved critical to the immediate disaster response in the wake of hurricanes Irma and Maria” she said.

She said former FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn was instrumental in supporting this funding after she visited and saw first-hand the telecommunications needs, in November 2016. Current FCC Chair Ajit Pai also visited the territory after the storms and honored the commitment to help restore the broadband network and other communications services.

The grant brings an immediate infusion of roughly $64 million in new funding for short-term restoration efforts. The FCC will also convert $65.8 million in advanced funding the commission provided last year to carriers in the U.S. Virgin Islands into new funding by declining to recover that advanced funding from future universal service support payments, according to Plaskett’s office.

The FCC will solicit public comment on a proposal to allocate $186.5 million over the next decade to expand fixed broadband connectivity in the USVI.

They are also going to solicit public comment on a proposal to allocate about $259 million in medium-term funding to expand 4G LTE mobile broadband connectivity here.

All facilities-based V.I. voice and broadband service providers are eligible to be involved, subject to receiving an Eligible Telecommunications Carrier designation. To participate, providers must certify their eligibility no later than 14 days after publication of the Order in the Federal Register.

“The commission has taken numerous actions to promote public safety and connectivity in the aftermath of last year’s hurricanes. In addition to providing public information on network outage conditions and sending staff to monitor and aid recovery efforts, the commission offered the territories nearly $77 million in advanced universal service funding to help recovery, accelerated the post-incentive auction transition to support U.S. Virgin Islands broadcasters, granted temporary waivers of Lifeline’s recertification rules, expedited approval of experimental licenses for Alphabet’s Project Loon to provide Internet access to residents, approved targeted and flexible E-Rate support to help restore connectivity of schools and libraries, and granted more than 500 waivers and requests for Special Temporary Authority to help re-establish communications in hurricane-affected areas,” Plaskett said.

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The Author

John McCarthy

John McCarthy

John McCarthy has been reporting on the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Caribbean region since 1989. John's articles have appeared in the BVI Beacon, St. Croix Avis, San Juan Star and Virgin Islands Daily News. He is originally from Detroit, Michigan.

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