When Hurricane Dorian struck the Bahamas earlier this month, it became the most powerful storm on record to make landfall in the Atlantic. The type of devastation Dorian visited upon the Bahamas is beyond anything most Americans have ever experienced. But for our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, the destruction was all too familiar.
Hurricanes Irma and Maria were the two of the strongest hurricanes to make landfall in the Atlantic over the past quarter-century, and they struck Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands over a span of just two weeks in 2017. For the two territories, these deadly storms are considered the worst natural disasters in recorded history.
Like so much else on the islands, communications networks were substantially destroyed by Irma and Maria. Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of the storms, more than 95% of cell sites were out in Puerto Rico. I saw the devastation firsthand on two trips, one shortly after the storms hit and another in March 2018. On a tour of west-central Puerto Rico, for example, I saw cable lines lying on the ground and others being held up by slender bamboo stalks—waiting to be transferred to replacement poles.
The Federal Communications Commission acted quickly to help with restoration efforts. For instance, less than a month after Maria hit the islands, we supplied about $66 million from our Universal Service Fund to help carriers in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands restore communications networks. And in May 2018, we approved an extra $64 million for this purpose. Thankfully, two years later, communications networks on the islands have largely been restored.
But we can’t rest on our laurels. Now we need to execute a long-term strategy to improve, expand, and harden broadband networks in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. That’s why the Commission will be voting this week on my proposal to allocate $950 million in investments to do just that. Puerto Rico, in particular, would receive about $759 million over the next ten years through the FCC’s Uniendo a Puerto Rico Fund.
Perhaps the most important thing to understand about this proposal is that it goes far beyond simply recovering from the devastation of Irma and Maria. It’s about connecting everyone in Puerto Rico to the opportunities of the Internet age. This funding can bring broadband connectivity to people and places in Puerto Rico that have never before had high-speed Internet access. This is not a plan to return to the way things were; it’s a plan to move Puerto Rico forward into the digital future.
My plan is guided by three core priorities.
One, I want to connect as many people as possible. That is why we will award financial support through a competitive process that gives preference to the broadband providers who submit the most cost-effective applications. The more affordable a proposal is, the more Puerto Ricans we can connect with the money we are spending.
Second, I want to promote the deployment of fast networks. People in Puerto Rico should be able to enjoy the same high-speed broadband services that residents of the U.S. mainland do. That’s why providers that can deliver faster service will have a better chance to receive funding. Fixed broadband providers who promise to deliver gigabit service will score the best. We are also allocating money to support the deployment of 5G, the next generation of wireless technology, in Puerto Rico. When it comes to all of the exciting advances that 5G will make possible, I don’t want Puerto Ricans to be left behind.
Third, I want to make sure communications networks in Puerto Rico are more reliable and resilient. That’s because we all know that Puerto Rico will be hit by hurricanes in the future. In deciding which projects to support, we therefore will favor more resilient technology solutions like buried fiber over things like aerial wires strung on utility poles. We will also be requiring all providers that receive funding to maintain and implement a Disaster Preparation and Response Plan.
President Kennedy once said, “The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.” If the FCC votes to approve my proposal on September 26, we’ll take a major step toward building a stronger foundation for Puerto Rico’s digital future and bringing to all Puerto Ricans the economic, educational, and health care opportunities that come with high-speed broadband access.