A new study suggests that the FCC not only failed to investigate cell phone carrier failures in the wake of the hurricanes that devastated Puerto Rico, it’s being oddly secretive about what the agency is actually doing to restore communications and minimize the impact of future storms.
In September 2017, Hurricane Irma made landfall on the island, knocking out power for more than 1.1 million Puerto Ricans. Just two weeks later, Hurricane Maria arrived as a category 4 storm. The resulting damage knocked 95 percent of the island’s cellular towers and 97 percent of its radio stations offline. The concussive blows proved historically fatal. An estimated 3,000 to 5,000 Puerto Ricans died, and recovery efforts were hindered by the lack of power and communications infrastructure. Consumer group Free Press issued a report this week stating that while the FCC has allotted $100 million to rebuild the island’s communications infrastructure, the agency has failed to put in place an adequate oversight process to make sure the companies receiving this funding spend the money for its intended purposes.
That’s a fairly common problem in the US telecom market. US carriers have historically received untold billions in tax breaks and subsidies for network upgrades that often fail to materialize. Government oversight ensuring that this money is spent correctly is often lacking. Pai has similarly come under fire for ignoring telecom fraud in states from Minnesota to West Virginia.
The Free Press report is peppered with FCC complaints from 52 island residents obtained using a Freedom of Information Act request. Those complaints note that the disaster was made significantly worse by the inability to connect with loved ones. Many of the complaints focus on being overcharged by carriers or never having received promised mobile data refunds. “The FCC, the government agency responsible for ensuring that the media and telecom companies it regulates serve the public interest, has yet to conduct a vigorous investigation into the failure of the islands’ communications infrastructure, which was a major factor in the death toll,” the report states.
The report notes that while the FCC has historically commissioned independent panels like the one it convened after Hurricane Katrina in 2006, no such panels were convened in the wake of Irma and Maria. It also notes that while Pai visited the struggling island to meet with telecom company officials, he failed to spend any time meeting with the public. In a statement provided to Motherboard, an FCC spokesperson insisted it was “terribly misleading to claim that establishing a commission would be a more effective use of time and resources than the work we did and continue to do.”
“FCC staff and senior leadership have spent significant time working with local leaders to do everything we can to help in the recovery, resiliency, and eventually improvement of communications services for these hard-hit Americans,” the agency said. But Free Press Senior Policy Counsel Carmen Scurato told Motherboard in a phone conversation that the group’s FOIA efforts have been met with repeated stonewalling by the agency. For example, while the FCC created a hurricane recovery task force in the wake of the disaster, nobody seems to know what the group has actually accomplished.
“We asked for documents related to their hurricane recovery task force and they said they weren’t going to give us that,” Scurato said. “We asked for meeting notes, we asked how often they met and who they met with, and there’s just a complete resistance from the FCC to tell us anything about that.”
This level of secrecy is well in character for a Pai FCC that has come under fire for dodging FOIA requests related to everything from the fake comments that plagued the agency’s net neutrality repeal, to information on the DDoS attack the agency made up to apparently downplay widespread public opposition to its policies. The group isn’t the only one critical of the FCC’s monitoring of telecommunications disaster recovery efforts. Last January the General Accounting Office issued a report that found the FCC historically doesn’t do a particularly good job tracking recovery efforts in the wake of wireless network outages, or holding carriers accountable for prolonged repair delays. The Free Press report coincidentally arrives hand in hand with a new report by the FCC itself showing widespread wireless carrier failures in the wake of last year’s Hurricane Michael in Florida. Scurato said that while even the FCC acknowledged significant carrier mistakes prolonged outages, no carriers were held accountable. Scurato also said that with most of the FCC’s oversight systems (like the disaster information reporting system, or DIRS) being voluntary, carriers often simply choose not to adhere to them with no real penalty.
“It seems that these voluntary commitments from these companies aren’t working,” she said. “I think it’s time for the FCC to scrap these voluntary mechanisms and create rules that actually hold the carriers accountable for their failures.” At an FCC oversight hearing on Wednesday, Congressman Frank Pallone briefly pressed Pai as to whether he urged carriers to wave data surcharges in the wake of the Puerto Rican disaster, something the FCC did for Hurricane Michael. Pai refused to answer the question.