Cutting off communication for Puerto Rican hurricane victims is just cruel

Cutting off communication for Puerto Rican hurricane victims is just cruel
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Seven months after Hurricanes Irma and Maria pounded Puerto Rico, the island experienced two separate and massive power blackouts within the span of a week in April, with the one leaving the entire island in total darkness.

This transpired just when life in many communities such as Villa Calma in Toa Baja was getting back to normal. The power had been recently restored, yet the sidewalks were still lined with rusted cars, ruined furniture, and destroyed appliances due to the devastating floods caused by Maria. It was a scene that was mirrored in too many other communities throughout the island. 

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In Juncos, four streets in Barrio Lirios were still without power. What is clear is that residents in Puerto Rico are still trying and working to rebuild. Yet, in the wake of these storms, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is pushing forward with changes to the Lifeline program, which would hamper recovery efforts and cut off hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans — who are also U.S. citizens — from vital telecommunications services.

 

The Lifeline program, created in 1985 during the Reagan administration, is the only federal program that helps connect poor and marginalized communities to telecommunications services. 

Lifeline provides access to affordable broadband and voice for nearly 13 million Americans by providing a modest subsidy of $9.25 a month to help ease the high-cost of communications for individuals and families living on the margins, providing a means to participate in our digital society. 

Despite the positive role Lifeline played to assist victims of Hurricane Katrina, the Trump administration’s FCC has proposed changes that would sharply alter the purpose and scope of the program, further antagonizing hurricane victims who are still struggling to rebuild.

Before the catastrophic 2017 hurricane season, over 500,000 island households relied on the Lifeline program to stay connected. After the storms, 95.6 percent of cell sites in Puerto Rico were out of service. Although the number has been reduced to 4.2 percent of cell sites, access to Lifeline is instrumental in helping Puerto Ricans recover and rebuild. 

The FCC’s proposals cruelly and inexplicably threaten to disconnect over 369,000 Lifeline customers in Puerto Rico alone. The FCC’s justification for these proposals relies on the pretext that the changes would stimulate investment in broadband networks; but there simply is no evidence that these changes would bring such a result. To the contrary, they would be counterproductive.

What is abundantly clear is that the FCC proposals would not only result in unnecessary hardships to Puerto Ricans, Texans, and Floridians impacted by the 2017 hurricanes, but particularly harm low-income Americans across the United States.

The FCC is proposing to:

  • artificially cap the program with a “self-enforcing budget” that ranks need based on location, deepening the urban versus rural digital divide
  • limit the availability of the modest subsidy by imposing a copay and a lifetime benefit
  • eliminate resellers, which provide services for 70 percent of current Lifeline subscribers.

All together the proposals would cut off over 8 million Lifeline customers, exacerbate the challenges faced by needy Americans and, ultimately, widen the digital divide.

The digital divide is stark, persists, and disproportionately impacts people of color. Yet, access to telecommunications, including broadband networks, has become a basic necessity for all Americans to be able to thrive and survive in our digital era. Telecommunications are vital to Americans’ ability to seek and gain employment, communicate with their loved ones, run small businesses, and pursue educational opportunities. 

More importantly, access is essential for communicating with health care providers, public safety officials, and emergency responders. Telecommunications are also critical to communities devastated by natural and other disasters. With the 2018 hurricane season around the corner, the last thing residents of Puerto Rico and other hurricane ravaged areas need, are measures that would disconnect them from lifesaving networks.

It is high time for the FCC to listen and reverse course. The overwhelming majority of civil rights, public interest, and consumer groups, wireless and broadband industry associations, and telcos like Verizon, Sprint and Comcast, agree that the FCC’s proposals will destabilize Lifeline and erode efforts to provide affordable broadband and voice services to hundreds of thousands of low-income households throughout our nation. We must tell the FCC to do the right thing: Discard these proposals and instead turn to policies which help connect all Americans, especially those still reeling from the extraordinary 2017 hurricane season.

Carmen Scutaro is the vice president of Policy and General Counsel of the National Hispanic Media Coalition.

Gloria Tristani is a former commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission and is the special policy advisor of the National Hispanic Media Coalition.