Urge Congress to Hold the FCC Accountable for the Communications Crisis in Puerto Rico
“For me, not having any cell phone connection or access to internet in the immediate aftermath of the storm was worse than not having electricity or water service. We had little idea what had happened in the rest of the country.”
— Maritza, San Juan, Puerto Rico
The ability to communicate is a life-and-death issue, especially during a disaster. And few disasters better exemplify this need than Hurricanes Irma and Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico in September 2017.
Hurricane Irma struck on Sept. 6 and left more than a million people without power while weakening Puerto Rico’s already fragile infrastructure. Then on Sept. 20, Hurricane Maria — a Category 4 storm — destroyed the islands’ infrastructure. It left nearly the entire population without power and knocked out Puerto Rico’s communications network. Between 3,000–5,000 people died, making it one of the deadliest disasters in U.S. history.1 And the inability of Puerto Ricans to make calls or access life-saving information contributed to the death toll.
For the past year, we’ve called on the FCC to appoint an independent commission to conduct a comprehensive investigation into Puerto Rico’s communications crisis, but the agency has yet to do so. This is unacceptable, especially since FCC Chairman Pai ordered an internal investigation in the Florida Panhandle immediately after Hurricane Michael made landfall there in 2018.2
Last October, Free Press joined Resilient Just Technologies and the Center for Embodied Pedagogy & Action in Puerto Rico to talk to people about their experience with communications during the 2017 hurricane season. We heard stories firsthand about how the lack of service impacted people’s lives.3
We also filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the FCC to learn about the complaints Puerto Ricans submitted after Hurricanes Irma and Maria about disruptions to phone and broadband services.4 Based on the stories we heard in Puerto Rico and the responses we’ve received so far to our FOIA request, it’s clear that the carriers’ inability to restore service had a major impact on the lives of Puerto Ricans, including their financial well being. But the FCC has failed to hold the phone and broadband companies accountable for the islands’ communication failures.
The FCC will soon appear before the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology for an oversight hearing. We need committee members to demand that Chairman Pai appoint an independent commission to conduct an investigation into the collapse of Puerto Rico’s communications networks — and make it clear that failing to do so is unacceptable.
An investigation is critical to understanding what happened to the islands’ communications networks — and to prevent the loss of phone and internet service following future disasters.
Click here to read our report about the communications crisis in Puerto Rico.
1. “Ascertainment of the Estimated Excess Mortality from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico,” Milken Institute School of Public Health, George Washington University, 2018: https://bit.ly/2wwqEqF; “Mortality in Puerto Rico After Hurricane Maria,” The New England Journal of Medicine, 2018: https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMsa1803972
2. “Free Press: Chairman Pai's Call for an Investigation of Communication Failures in Florida Contrasts His Inaction in Puerto Rico,” Free Press, Oct. 24, 2018: https://www.freepress.net/news/press-releases/free-press-chairman-pais-call-investigation-communication-failures-florida
3. “Puerto Ricans Speak Out About Islands’ Communications Crisis,” Free Press, Oct. 18, 2018: https://www.freepress.net/our-response/advocacy-organizing/stories-field/puerto-ricans-speak-out-about-islands-communications
4. “Free Press’ Post-Hurricane FOIA Request to the FCC,” Free Press, Nov. 9, 2018: https://www.freepress.net/sites/default/files/2019-05/free_press_foia_request_11_09_18.pdf