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Pai: Use USF Funds for Puerto Rican Recovery

Alan Breznick

Seeking to jump-start the restoration of communication service in storm-battered Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands after two weeks of chaos, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is proposing to advance up to $77 million in Universal Service Fund (USF) monies to service providers to cover emergency network repairs.

Fresh off his confirmation by a divided US Senate for a second term at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) , Pai penned a blog for the FCC website Tuesday calling on his fellow commissioners to approve an order that would make the funds available immediately. Specifically, he wants to offer up to seven months of USF monies to carriers in one lump sum now so they can start network repairs and service restoration. (See Pai Prevails, Confirmed for 2nd Term at FCC.)

"In normal times, this fund provides federal subsidies to companies to make communications services (voice and Internet) more accessible and affordable in places where the cost of providing service is high," Pai wrote. "Typically, companies get those subsidies on a month-by-month basis. The devastation wrought by Maria in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands requires us to think more creatively."

Pai argued that the move would be "a shot in the arm for network recovery and reconstruction." He said it would also "give companies the flexibility they need to restore service as quickly and efficiently as possible. "

The proposal -- perhaps not coincidentally made on the same day that President Trump visited Puerto Rico after heavy criticism of the federal government's sluggish response to Hurricane Maria -- came nearly two weeks after the storm ravaged both Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, knocking out the electric grid on Puerto Rico and wreaking unprecedented damage to all the islands. As of Monday, nearly 90% of the cell phone sites in Puerto Rico and nearly 70% of the cell towers in the Virgin Islands remained out of service, according to the FCC. And little progress has been made over the past week.

In his blog yesterday, Pai said he hopes "my fellow commissioners will join me in helping to bring back connectivity to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands as soon as possible." But, he said, if this proposal has not been approved by the FCC's regular October meeting three weeks from now, "it will top our agenda on October 24."

In its own statement, AT&T praised the FCC efforts at rebuilding communications infrastructure. The company said it will "closely assess the details of the chairman's proposal as we continue with the recovery and restoration of our network and facilities."

— Alan Breznick, Cable/Video Practice Leader, Light Reading

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10/18/2017 | 8:48:02 AM
Shifting Funds And Fortunes?
It would seem that Pai's proposal would be a stop gap means to get communications services up and running bit faster in hard hit Puerto Rico. But, it still leaves the question of where to make up the money taken from the USF program, at some later date to benefit the mostly poor and rural areas still needing the subsidies to install the necessary infrastructures. Maybe those funds should be immediately put to use for it's intended use?
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