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Puerto Rico's remote areas fear telecom breakdown

Puerto Rico's remote areas fear telecom breakdown
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Local advocates are raising concerns that remote parts of Puerto Rico remain without the necessary telecommunications network as the U.S. island territory prepares for a historic hurricane season.

Puerto Rico, which has already been battered recently by a tropical storm, has struggled to rebuild its telecom infrastructure after it was devastated by Hurricane María almost three years ago.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Thursday released the guidelines to access Puerto Rico's $691 million share out of a $950 million fund to rebuild telecom infrastructure in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, but local business leaders say legacy carriers have so far proven ineffective in servicing remote areas of the island.

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Local telecommunications companies and leaders from smaller communities are worried large corporations could overlook those areas, risking a repeat of the situation in 2017 when vast swaths of the territory were incommunicado after the disaster.

"I think that the commission has to take another look at what's going on here and try to allow new players that can come in with a different approach to try to address the needs of the community," said José Luis Rodríguez, a board member of Caribbean Preparedness and Response (CPR), a non-profit focused on improving emergency telecommunications in the region.

"These big companies are not interested. They might have the technology to come here and provide a solution immediately, but they really are not interested," said Rodríguez.

And telecommunications infrastructure is at a breaking point ahead of any potential hurricanes hitting the island this year, as networks are overburdened by home use spurred by coronavirus stay-at-home orders.

"This fund was supposed to be targeted to emergency, but guess what? The pandemic is an emergency," said Rodríguez, who has weathered out the pandemic in the island of Culebra, a small municipality that suffers from connectivity problems.

"If there is a need that is going unmet, it's educational. Small communities like this that need to provide adequate connectivity so students and teachers can connect and be able to get educated in places like Culebra," he said.

"You add poverty as a factor here and even if you provide the connectivity, the question is: There are people willing to bring connectivity at $200 to $300 per connection – that is not realistic here," he added.

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Still, advances have been made in telecommunications resiliency since 2017.

Sandra Torres, president of the Puerto Rico Telecommunications Regulatory Board, said cell phone communications are much less dependent on the power grid than they were back then.

Puerto Rico's power authority, PREPA, has become a political hot potato as its antiquated power generation system and its jerry-rigged grid have become increasingly difficult to maintain and manage.

Torres said many telecommunications towers have been retrofitted with generators, solar panels and batteries, and a recent test run of the resiliency system showed cell phone reception would sustain at 85 percent to 95 percent given a storm similar to Hurricane María.

In 2017, one of the most devastating effects of María was its decimation of the electrical grid, ripping out light poles throughout the island, many of which also carried copper or fiber optic cables for telecom providers.

The trifecta left parts of the island without power for more than a year, destroyed wired communications infrastructure, and left wireless networks inoperable until power was restored.

Reconstruction of the island's telecommunications grid around major cities has focused on new, underground cables, which regulators hope will keep a majority of the island's population connected in case of a new weather emergency.

"Of course whenever something like this happens, we call on the citizens to make moderate use of the telecommunications system," said Torres, warning the system could become oversaturated in case of emergency.

"But that we would have a complete collapse of telecommunications service in face of an atmospheric event like Hurricane María, we are not contemplating that," she added.

Torres touted cooperation between the local regulator and the FCC, including post-María visits by FCC commissioners to the island.

Those visits ultimately led to the creation of the Uniendo a Puerto Rico Fund, which is fed by a small fee on each individual cell phone bill.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in September of 2019 gave the final green light to the fund, which he said would finance improvements to connectivity and resiliency.

“It is time to authorize long-term funding to ensure that everyone in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands has access to the same high-speed fixed and mobile broadband networks as other Americans. And at the same time, we must storm-harden those communications networks so they can withstand the future hurricanes that will undoubtedly come,” said Pai at the time.

Puerto Rico was already hit by a tropical storm this season – Isaías, which later became a hurricane before hitting Florida and other eastern states – and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is predicting a record-breaking Atlantic hurricane season.

Already nine storms have reached the intensity required to receive an official name, and the NOAA is estimating the season will produce 19 to 25 such storms. By comparison, in an average year, 12 storms are strong enough to receive a name.

That's left Puerto Ricans who live or do business in remote areas worried they'll relive the pain of 2017, as they're still picking up the pieces from that devastating storm.

"I can assure you that if a hurricane of any category comes, the same thing is going to happen, because the infrastructure was not fixed," said Elliot Pacheco, a business owner who operates a pharmacy and grocery store in the mountain town of Cayey.

Pacheco said Isaías – at tropical storm strength – managed to knock out power in Cayey for nearly a week.

He added concern that, as social services become increasingly dependent on internet connectivity, they've also become less reliable in remote areas.

Pacheco related his experience after María, when he was forced to carry his pharmacy server to a facility two hours away due to flooding to process medical prescriptions.

And federal food assistance in Puerto Rico, on which nearly 1.3 million people depend, is provided via debit cards, which are rendered useless without power and connectivity.

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"I had no way to charge them because there just was no way," said Pacheco. "I would write up an IOU and ask them to come back and pay later."

Pacheco said all the IOUs were repaid, but warned that a long blackout would leave Puerto Rico's most vulnerable – the poor in remote areas – without food or health care.

And given the speed of reconstruction and the prioritization of metropolitan areas for improvements, many Puerto Ricans are not confident remote areas will get the telecommunications infrastructure they need to weather a new storm.

"The areas that need it the most I think those are the areas that will not be able to get the telecommunications services that we need," said Rodríguez.

"Progress has been made, but not enough," added Rodríguez.