By Joseph Torres and Leo Fitzpatrick
During the final months of 2019, powerful Democratic politicians have called for an investigation into the collapse of Puerto Rico’s communications networks following Hurricane María in 2017—as well as the Trump administration’s failure to adequately respond to the islands’ communications blackout.
Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign called for such an investigation. On December 6, Sanders’ presidential campaign unveiled its broadband plan, which advocates for breaking up big broadband companies and ensuring that every person in the United States has high-speed internet by the end of his first term. Sanders’ plan also discusses the post-hurricane collapse of Puerto Rico’s telecommunications infrastructure in its call for $150 billion in funding via a Green New Deal to municipalities and states to build “publicly owned and democratically controlled, co-operative, or open access broadband networks” that are resilient.
“[Puerto Rico’s] damaged communication infrastructure left many without access to life-saving information,” the broadband plan reads. “Reports have shown that Puerto Rico’s damaged communication infrastructure contributed to the staggering death toll. Today, the island’s communication infrastructure has yet to be fully repaired, a direct result of this administration’s apathy and cruelty.”
Sanders states that if elected president, he would:
- “Perform a full review of the post-disaster response to the communications crisis in Puerto Rico and ensure broadband and telecommunications services are swiftly restored.”
- “Ensure any new broadband infrastructure is resilient to the effects of climate change.”
- “Ensure disasters are not used by corporations to reap taxpayer-subsidized profits, and that all rebuilding funding goes to restoring service and improving resiliency.”
Last January, leading Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren joined former Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Sen. Kamala Harris, as well as Rep. Nydia Velázquez and other colleagues in reintroducing legislation that called for an independent commission to investigate the factors that contributed to the failed federal disaster response, including the “adequacy of the Island’s telecommunications.”
One of the deadliest disasters in U.S. history, Hurricane María knocked out 95.6% of cell sites in Puerto Rico shortly after landfall. For many residents, the outages lasted for months. Between 3,000–5,000 people died, and the inability of Puerto Ricans to make calls for help or access life-saving information contributed to the death toll.
Free Press has worked with Puerto Rican activist Teresa Basilio to make sure the voices of Puerto Ricans are heard in our campaign to push the FCC to appoint an independent commission to investigate the islands’ communications blackout. The agency has a history of investigating the causes of major communication disruptions following disasters like Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Michael in 2018.
These investigations have informed policies designed to prevent future communication disruptions—even as industry has often blocked these policies from becoming enforceable regulations.
But the agency has failed to show any interest in fully examining what happened in Puerto Rico. The FCC’s indifference or negligence shouldn’t come as a surprise: the Trump administration’s racist response to the crisis served as a further reminder —if one was even needed— that the islands remain a colonial possession of the United States.
On the second anniversary of Hurricane Maria in 2019, Free Press sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that urged Democratic leaders to use their congressional-oversight powers to investigate the roots of the islands’ communications crisis and hold the FCC accountable for not conducting an investigation. The letter was signed by Puerto Rican activists and scholars as well as racial justice and social justice groups.
Meanwhile, in October Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., the powerful chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, urged the Government Accountability Office to examine the causes of the communications failures and the pace of restoration efforts. He noted that the FCC’s response “continues to raise serious questions about the state of our communications infrastructure.”
“Communications services are much more than a convenience, especially in times of disasters,” he added. “They are the lifeline that allows anyone in danger to call emergency responders for help, or someone to communicate with a family member that they are okay.”
At the same time, questions remain about whether the FCC is doing enough to ensure the more than $100 million it has so far awarded telecom companies in Puerto Rico is being used to restore service and build more resilient networks. Right now that’s in serious doubt.
“At the outset, in the two years since Hurricane María made landfall, the FCC has spent over $100 million in universal service funds in an effort to boost the restoration of communications on Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands,” said FCC Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel. “However, comb through the text of this decision, and it’s apparent the FCC does not have a clear picture of where those funds were spent and what the current state of communications facilities looks like on the ground.”
She added: “We should know with precision what was spent and where. And we should fashion what we do today around all of that information. But we do not. That’s regrettable. It’s an invitation for waste because it fails to ensure we are directing funding to areas with the greatest need.”
Joseph Torres is the senior director of strategy and engagement at Free Press, where Leo Fitzpatrick is a policy counsel and a C. Edwin Baker Fellow.