Efforts to get Puerto Rican broadcasters back on the air and telecommunications services back online continue and Federal Communications Commission chief Ajit Pai is just back from a two-day trip to the territory. Pai said his visit was to assess the situation on the ground and to meet with government and industry officials about a “path forward” for Puerto Rico. But even before he touched down in San Juan, Pai said the scope of the problem began to come into focus. “[The] plane ride down was striking—many on board aiming to help, from military to FEMA to faith-based groups. Much to do,” he wrote on Twitter.
Since Hurricane Maria made landfall Sept. 20 as a category five storm on Puerto Rico’s southeastern coast, the FCC says it has been “actively engaged” with the recovery efforts, including by providing $77 million in funding to restore communications service and rebuild damaged communications networks. But the scope of the problem remains extraordinary. The latest FCC data shows 48% of cellphone towers are still offline. That figure is an average, however, with eight in ten tower sites down in some hard-hit counties. And with much of the electrical grid still not operational, it’s meant many broadcasters continue to rely on generators. The FCC says 47 FMs and 40 AMs are confirmed operational. But 33 FMs and 33 AMs continue to be off the air. And perhaps most astonishing, the agency still hasn’t been able to confirm the status of 31 FMs and one AM post-Maria.
“The FCC is committed to supporting recovery efforts and doing everything we can to help restore communications networks as quickly as possible,” Pai said in a statement over the weekend. He created a Hurricane Recovery Task Force last month comprised of representatives from bureaus and offices throughout the agency, explaining he expects it will be a “long-term project” for the agency.
Back in Washington, FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said it is “unacceptable” that nearly half of Puerto Rico’s cellphone service is still not working nearly two months after the storm hit. In a series of Twitter posts she said it is “time to do more” and she renewed her call for the FCC to hold a series of field hearings to collect first-hand stories from the regions struck by the storms. Similar hearings were concluded after Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy she first noted last month. Pai hasn’t ruled out holding field hearings, although he has said the focus needs to remain on restoration and recovery.
Ten Thousand Radio-Powered Lifelines
The slow return to normalcy has meant a broadcaster effort to distribute 10,000 battery-operated radios to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands has taken on even greater importance while once again illustrating the power of radio to connect people during a crisis. The National Association of Broadcasters, the National Alliance of State Broadcasters Associations (NASBA) and several U.S. broadcasters funded the initiative that in recent weeks resulted in delivering those portable radios to hard-hit communities.
In a video about the trip NAB public service manager Suzie Raven said the devastation was worse than she’d expected even in the capital of San Juan where the power had been restored thanks to generators. But outside of San Juan it was much worse. “Even a month after the hurricane hit, there were still a lot of cellphone towers that were down. And a lot of people were missing water, power and information,” she said.
Even with logistical challenges, people in 25 Puerto Rican towns received radios from the shipment. In some cases Raven said crowds gathered to get their hands on a receiver. “People were thrilled—they would take them out of the boxes immediately and start flipping through the dial for different stations,” she said. “We even had people who would start dancing in the streets listening to the radio.”
In one particularly memorable trip, Rio Grande, PR mayor Anibal Meléndez Rivera helped bring the NAB team into his community located in a rural mountainous area in El Yunque National Forest where 400 radios were ultimately distributed. Another was to the small town of Loiza along the northeast coast, where median household income is less than $10,000 and few people own a cellphone. “The look of these people with the radios and hearing the news and the music was priceless,” NAB building engineer Louis Abanez said. “They have nothing—they lost their houses, they have no food, no water—they just need help.”
The NAB says the Puerto Rico Association of Broadcasters continues to distribute more radios around the island. “Radio is the main source of information across the island as they rebuild power lines and work to get the infrastructure back,” Raven said. “Radio is the main way to disseminate information.”