Ajit Pai 2017

Fresh off a fact-finding trip to the Gulf Coast, Federal Communications Commission chief Ajit Pai said what he saw in the Florida Panhandle as a result of Hurricane Michael reminded him of the damage he witnessed in the past year in Puerto Rico, Florida and Texas during the previous hurricane season. “Another familiar aspect is local radio and TV broadcasters were unsung heroes in their first informer roles and in the aftermath,” Pai told reporters Tuesday.

Pai traveled to Panama City, Mexico Beach, and St. George’s Island on Friday, where he met with staff from the Federal Emergency Management Agency as well as Florida’s emergency management team. But it was a helicopter ride that may’ve had the most impact. “It was striking to see home after home and some large businesses decimated,” Pai said. “The destruction was so complete in some neighborhoods it was shocking to see a building intact.”

The slow pace of cell phone service restoration last week led a frustrated Pai to publicly call for the wireless companies to automatically waive the bills of their customers in the affected areas for the month of October and to allow them to change carriers without any potential penalties.

Hurricane Michael packed 155mph winds as it made landfall, and Pai said it’s expected that winds that strong would result in service outages. During his visit to Florida he met with representatives from the four major cell phone carriers and cable-internet provider Comcast about their efforts to restore service. Pai said he learned there was “poor communication” between the various communications companies and utility companies. He also learned that as Florida Power & Light utility crews were racing to restore electrical service, they often were severing fiber cables as they cleared an extraordinary amount of debris.

In recent days Pai said crews having been communicating better and “real progress” has been made to get every service up and running. The latest data from the FCC shows 4.6% of the cell tower sites were out of service on Tuesday morning, which was down slightly from 5.2% reported a day earlier.

Pai said the lesson the FCC should take away from Hurricane Michael is that it’s time for a “comprehensive reevaluation” of the rules adopted by the Obama administration regarding the resiliency of the wireless system. One flaw in the current outline, according to Pai, is the assumption that the wireless companies and electrical utilities are effectively communicating with one another. As the FCC review moves forward, he suggested it could require the agency to seek additional authority to oversee post-disaster recovery efforts.

Hurricane Michael brought the strongest wind speeds to hit the mainland U.S. since Hurricane Andrew in 1992. So while radio has largely gotten back on its feet, some stations are still off the air as a result of the Category 4 storm. The latest data from the FCC shows that as of Tuesday morning, there are still nine stations off the air across the 21 Florida counties where the FCC is still collecting information. The list included six full-power FMs, two AMs, and one low-power FM. The Disaster Information Reporting System or DIRS is voluntary, and so the figure may be higher if some stations off the air didn’t submit a report to the FCC.