We are in the second month of the 2019 hurricane season and to many, especially those living in Puerto Rico, there are fears about what this season may bring to the island that was devastated by Hurricanes Irma and Maria almost two years ago. Those working in disaster management cite the importance of preparedness in advance of extreme weather; however, in order for a community to be prepared, there must be data that helps the community understand the full scope of their vulnerabilities.
One major vulnerability Puerto Rico faces is its fragile communications network which was reported on extensively in a recent publication by Free Press, Connecting the Dots: The Telecommunications Crisis in Puerto Rico. Unfortunately, the Ajit Pai-led Federal Communications Commission failed to include very important data about the status of broadband availability in the U.S. territories affected by these 2017 disasters in this year’s Broadband Deployment Report. Under Section 706, the FCC is required to report annually on whether telecommunications capability is “is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.” If not, the FCC is then required to take “immediate action.” This year, the FCC specifically said it chose not to report on data from disaster-stricken areas “so that such damage does not artificially deflate progress in deployment and that we can continue to track progress in rehabilitating such networks.”
However, the choice not to include disaster-stricken areas is indeed that — a choice. It’s a choice to artificially inflate the current status of broadband. It’s a choice not to work in the public interest. And moreover, it’s a choice to continue this administration's self-congratulatory streak while those on the island fight to be seen as just American and just as worthy of strong broadband infrastructure as those who live on the mainland.
Furthermore, the decision not to include these disaster-stricken areas speaks to this administration’s failure to properly respond to Puerto Rico’s needs both in the immediate wake of the hurricanes and in the recovery efforts that followed. There is evidence that this administration’s responses to the Hurricane Maria lagged behind Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Public officials must be vigilant in gaining a deeper understanding of the digital divide even if that divide is exacerbated by natural disasters in U.S. territories. This report serves as a method to hold companies accountable for the state of broadband in vulnerable communities.
The FCC should not stand idly by as Puerto Rico continues to be economically feeble. The Commission most definitely can’t stand idly by when two to four major hurricanes are expected this year. Public Knowledge, the National Hispanic Media Coalition, and Common Cause have previously stated the importance of including disaster-stricken areas in this report and now that time has passed. It is necessary that the Commission release the status of Puerto Rico’s broadband infrastructure.