AT&T backs Ajit Pai's plan to restore storm-damaged plant in Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands

Hurricane damage in Puerto Rico
Hurricane damage in Puerto Rico. (FiercePharma)

AT&T has strongly endorsed the FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s recent proposal to establish a set of funds, totaling $954 million, to rebuild wireless communications infrastructure in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. The company said it is overtaxing its own power systems to keep its networks up and running, and characterized the situation as “serious.”

Nearly a year after the islands were devastated by hurricanes Irma and Maria, communications networks in both territories are still crippled, running out of capacity and in dire need of upgrades and hardening against future storms.

AT&T explained it has been running its networks in both territories on generators, which “have a short life-span due to out-of-spec intensive use,” according to an AT&T presentation (PDF) accompanying its letter (PDF) of support. AT&T said it has “immediate need of over 200 generators.”

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Energy problems in Puerto Rico appear to be particularly bad, exacerbated by both the shortcomings and the unreliability of the island’s power grid, which was knocked out yet again last week, albeit relatively briefly this time.

Last October, Pai proposed diverting money from the FCC’s Universal Service Fund to restore network operations in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. That was approved.

The USF was created to subsidize the delivery of telephone service to remote underserved and unserved areas; it was updated in recent years to include broadband.

In response to his recent call for nearly $1 billion in additional funding, AT&T said it “strongly endorses Chairman Pai’s proposal for additional Universal Service Fund (“USF”) support to help restore and expand communications networks across Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.”

AT&T noted that many households in both territories “still lack reliable home broadband service and are using their mobile service for Internet access.” The company said that the average mobile use (both voice and data) in March 2018 versus August 2017 was up 63% in Puerto Rico and 69% in the Virgin Islands.

AT&T also presented a wish list of things it would like to do with the new funding. They include hardening networks across both territories, maximizing the population served by buried infrastructure, diversifying key fiber routes to maximize network resiliency, replacing aerial construction with buried facilities—and “not just for critical infrastructure,” expanding emergency backup microwave wireless backhaul capabilities, and reinforcing existing poles and towers.

In October, Congress approved $4.7 billion in loans to Puerto Rico for recovery, but that money was held up by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin until late last month.