Pai: More USF Money Needed to Help Puerto Rican Communications

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, fresh off a two-day fact-finding trip to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, talks with B&C Washington Bureau Chief John Eggerton about what he saw, including devastation unlike any of the preceding hurricanes, the need for more Universal Service Fund money, the value of creative thinking about communications solutions, and the lack of an FCC field office that could have helped before and after the storm, he suggests.

An edited interview follows.

B&C:What was your main takeaway from the trip?

There is serious devastation to the island that will take a great deal of effort and time to address, and even by comparison to the devastation I saw in Houston post-Harvey and in Miami post-Irma, this is an order of magnitude greater, it seemed to me.

It reinforces my view that the FCC needs to think creatively about different ways to restore communications networks. Some of the actions we have already taken include the accelerated $77 million in Universal Service Funding.

B&C: You said additional funding is going to be needed. Any ballpark on that and where is it coming from, USF or somewhere else?

I have in mind USF. There is no particular number, but we need to think very carefully about what resources would be necessary to get these communications networks back up and running. And, of course, part of that includes power. That was an overriding theme in most of the meetings I had. Without power it is very difficult to restore and maintain networks.

But with respect to the infrastructure itself that was destroyed, I think we do need to think creatively about how to use our resources and regulatory approach in a way that will allow these networks to get back up.

B&C: The Administration has obviously taken some hits for its response to the hurricane. How would you rate the FCC's response?

It's difficult to give the agency its own grade, but I will say that I am extremely impressed by what I saw and heard from the folks on the ground there.

The fact that we extended universal service funding in a very creative and quick way was greatly appreciated by wireline providers. The fact that we quickly allowed a fixed wireless company to use 5 GHz spectrum was greatly appreciated because it allowed that provider, Aeronet, to provide connectivity where the fixed infrastructure was essentially destroyed. The fact that we had taken action on E-rates to enable schools and libraries, many of which have been completely devastated, to get connectivity needed to educate kids.

It's also the personnel we have on the ground.  So, there are things we have done that I was gratified to hear were appreciated by the folks who are trying to keep the lights on, quite literally.

B&C: You said you met with an array of providers, radio and TV, wired and wireless. What were those conversations about, pep talks from you, requests from them?

I would characterize the meetings broadly as having two general thrusts. One was to describe their efforts to bring their stations or networks back, if they were back, and secondly to thank the FCC for taking steps to address some of the issues that were important to them.

Aeronet, which I mentioned earlier,  was one example. Open Mobile, one of the wireless companies there, was another example. The CEO talked about some of the things the FCC had done to help them provide service and said that was fundamental to the very survival of the company. Other companies were extremely grateful for the USF funding, saying it was critical to them given the capital crunch they were facing.

In terms of asks, there were not a huge number of them because I think they recognized we are doing everything we can. But they did want to keep the lines of communications [with the FCC] open and I committed to that.

B&C:You said in your statement about the trip that folks down there were lamenting the closing of the FCC field office last year. Who was lamenting it and was it a mistake to close it?"

The universal message I heard from broadcasters to wireless companies was that having staff on the ground had been tremendously helpful. I met the individual who was in that office. I was able hear from him and from the FCC staff there temporarily about how important that office was. So, I certainly think it would have been helpful at the time of the storm and the lead-up to the storm to have had personnel there on a full-time basis.

B&C: And why was it closed, budget issues?

As I understand it, this was part of the prior administration's field reorganization plan and this was one of the field offices they decided to close.

B&C:Any lessons learned that could help make communications more robust in the future?

I am still in the process of synthesizing that, having just gotten back. But I think one of the things is that power is absolutely essential. That may be obvious, but especially in a situation like this where huge swaths of the island are without power and it is exceptionally difficult to be able to bring networks back into being. The second thing is that coordination is exceptionally important.

One of the things I saw when I visited the JFO (Joint Field Office) was that it was extremely helpful to have FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers and the National Weather Service, and even the Post Office, and the Puerto Rican Telecommunications Regulatory Board, and FCC personnel, all in one place. That enables much more collaboration than otherwise might be the case if folks were sprinkled throughout San Juan or throughout the island.

I think that kind of collaboration and coordination is a useful model going forward. That is one of the things I heard from the FEMA personnel , that it was useful to have a one-stop shop where they could address a lot of these issues.

B&C: The most recent FCC report from Puerto Rico showed that the status of 31 TV stations was still unconfirmed. This seems a long time after the storm for that uncertainty? Are you reaching out to try and determine their status?

That was one of the issues that broadcasters raised, that some of the stations were completely wiped out so that, literally, the only way they had been able to contact some of their counterparts was by driving to a town and seeing if the personnel are OK. It is a really difficult situation for many broadcasters. I heard heroic stories about folks trying help each other out. Certainly the FCC stands by those efforts, and if there is something we can do to help some of those stations get back on the air, we are certainly open to doing that.

B&C: How long before communications have been fully restored?

In terms of the TV stations, it is difficult to predict when some of the hardest hit stations are going to get power. Some of the personnel who work at those stations might have been scattered because their homes were destroyed.

So, that is on the broadcast side. One of the fixed wireless companies, for example, said that a number of their employees' homes were destroyed so they and their families had been sleeping in the network operations center because that is one of the few places that was safe and secure and clean and cool. So there are situations that providers are dealing with down there that are beyond the scope of a typical post-disaster situation.

B&C: What else should we have asked you about our trip?

One of the things that truly impressed me, and I mentioned it in my statement, is a spirit of ‘Puerto Rico Se Levanta,’ which is "Puerto Rico is rising up." And I really did get a sense from the staff that was on the ground to the Puerto Rican regulators I met with to every single provider, that they were in this for the long haul. It was gratifying to see that whatever the challenges might be on the island, they were being met by people who were highly dedicated to the task at hand.

I also wanted to mention that when I flew back, I connected through Atlanta and the flight was full of emergency management personnel, FEMA workers and the like. You could tell from the look on their faces that they had been down there a while and working really hard. When we got off the plane, it was extremely gratified to see other officials on the ground holding up a sign that said "Thank you for your work," and clapping. Obviously not for me, but for those other folks who deserved those plaudits.  I think it was a nice way to recognize the work that they had put in.

These are the folks who really deserve their country's gratitude because they have given up a lot to be in a very difficult situation, and they have given it their all.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.