Show an ad over header. AMP

Why Puerto Ricans are still struggling to get online

Internet connectivity remains a weak link for the disaster-wracked U.S. territory Puerto Rico, and some experts fear a new tranche of Federal Communications Commission subsidies set aside just for the island might not help the people most in need of a broadband connection.

Why it matters: Puerto Rico is locked out of most federal funding available to U.S. states to help expand internet service. The island risks being left behind as carriers expand and upgrade high-speed internet networks elsewhere, even as infrastructure-damaging tropical storms come faster and harder and the pandemic makes broadband even more of a must-have.


Driving the news: President Trump Friday announced a plan for $12 billion in aid to the island to rebuild its power systems and lay the foundation for a revival of its once-thriving pharmaceutical manufacturing business. But Puerto Rico has broader infrastructure needs.

Where it stands: The FCC is in the process of reviewing applications from companies vying for some $505 million in subsidies to be used over the next decade to build out broadband service in Puerto Rico, in a program called Uniendo a Puerto Rico.

  • Puerto Rico's communications networks, already spotty in many areas, sustained major damage from Hurricane Maria in 2017.
  • Telecom providers have worked to shore up infrastructure since, and networks proved more resilient against a series of earthquakes this year, facing less widespread outages and going down for a shorter period than they did after Maria, Sandra Torres López, president of the Puerto Rico Telecommunications Regulatory Board, told Axios.
  • But many people in Puerto Rico still have limited or no internet access, and building out networks is a challenge on the mountainous island.

The coronavirus pandemic has drawn Puerto Rico's connectivity woes in sharper relief, limiting possibilities for remote work, learning and medical care.

  • "My wife is a teacher and she has 22 students in her classroom. Only 12 children have [internet] service; the other 10 don't have access," Ernesto Irizarry Salvá, mayor of the town of Utuado, told Axios. "And those kids live in Caguana ... one of the neighborhoods with more access to the internet. These are American children that do not have access to anything in this pandemic."

The catch: Other parts of the U.S. can tap federal funds to close the connectivity gap, and the Trump administration has placed special emphasis on getting more of rural America online.

  • Yet Puerto Rico, despite much of the island being heavily rural, is either disadvantaged in or outright excluded from most federal rural broadband subsidy programs.
  • One reason: Puerto Rico's small size means most areas are too close to the capital city of San Juan to qualify as rural under the programs.

The FCC's Uniendo a Puerto Rico fund, established in the wake of Hurricane Maria, is an exception. (Funding also comes to Puerto Rico via the Departments of Agriculture and Housing and Urban Development, but would-be recipients tell Axios the USDA funds are hard to qualify for, while HUD grants can take ages to be approved and disbursed.)

Yes, but: Some parties worry the end result will be more subsidies for major providers that have operated in Puerto Rico for years without delivering the reliable, fast, widely available and resilient networks that are badly needed on the island.

  • Blackburn, a Puerto Rico-based firm that sells wholesale network access and other telecom services in Latin America, is one party pitching the FCC on an alternative route.
  • It was initially deemed ineligible to compete for Uniendo a Puerto Rico funds because, the company says, it didn't have an existing form on file with the FCC detailing consumer broadband coverage.
  • Blackburn says that with FCC funding, it could build a network delivering 110 Mbps broadband to Puerto Rican consumers via fixed wireless connections. Its petition for the FCC to reconsider its eligibility is currently pending alongside other companies' applications to vie for subsidies.

What's next: The FCC will select winning bidders for the Uniendo a Puerto Rico funds through an auction process. Then it will be tasked with making sure the money is put to its best use.

  • "The rules we adopted last year for the Uniendo a Puerto Rico fund contain oversight, reporting, and accountability measures designed to make sure providers who benefit from the Fund live up to their public interest obligations," FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks, a Democrat who hosted a field hearing in February on connectivity challenges in Puerto Rico, told Axios via email.
  • "But we have to actually enforce those rules and impose real consequences for violations — something this commission has not always done. I’ll be carefully monitoring that oversight process to make sure these badly needed funds are spent effectively and efficiently."

Bond investors see brighter days

U.S. government bonds could breakout further after yields on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note ticked up to their highest since early June last week.

But, but, but: Strategists say this move is about an improving outlook for economic growth rather than just inflation.

Keep reading... Show less

The dangerous instability of school re-openings

Schools across the country have flip-flopped between in-person and remote learning — and that instability is taking a toll on students' ability to learn and their mental health.

The big picture: While companies were able to set long timelines for their return, schools — under immense political and social strain — had to rush to figure out how to reopen. The cobbled-together approach has hurt students, parents and teachers alike.

Keep reading... Show less

Trump doesn't have a second-term economic plan

President Trump has not laid out an economic agenda for his second term, despite the election being just eight days away.

Why it matters: This is unprecedented in modern presidential campaigns, and makes it harder for undecided voters to make an informed choice.

Keep reading... Show less

How Trump’s energy endgame could go

Expect President Trump to redouble his efforts loosening regulations and questioning climate-change science should he win reelection next month.

Driving the news: A second Trump administration would supercharge efforts by certain states, countries and companies to address global warming. But some wildcards could have a greener tinge.

Keep reading... Show less

The swing states where the pandemic is raging

Data: The COVID Tracking Project, The Cook Political Report; Table: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Several states that are likely to decide which party controls Washington next year have exceptionally large coronavirus outbreaks or are seeing cases spike.

Why it matters: Most voters have already made up their minds. But for those few holdouts, the state of the pandemic could ultimately help them make a decision as they head to the polls — and that's not likely to help President Trump.

Keep reading... Show less

Tropical Storm Zeta may strengthen into hurricane before reaching U.S.

The U.S. Gulf Coast and Mexico are bracing for another possible hurricane after Tropical Storm Zeta formed in the Caribbean Sea Sunday.

Of note: Zeta is the 27th named storm of the 2020 Atlantic Hurricane season — equaling a record set in 2005.

Keep reading... Show less

Rockefeller Foundation commits $1 billion for COVID-19 recovery

The Rockefeller Foundation announced on Monday that it will allocate $1 billion over the next three years to address the pandemic and its aftermath.

Why it matters: The mishandled pandemic and the effects of climate change threaten to reverse global progress and push more than 100 million people into poverty around the world. Governments and big NGOs need to ensure that the COVID-19 recovery reaches everyone who needs it.

Keep reading... Show less

How Amy Coney Barrett will make an immediate impact on the Supreme Court

In her first week on the job,Amy Coney Barrett may be deciding which votes to count in the presidential election. By her third week, she’ll be deciding the fate of the Affordable Care Act.

Where it stands: The Senate votes on Barrett’s nomination tomorrow. If she’s confirmed, Chief Justice John Roberts is expected to swear her in at the Supreme Court within hours, an administration official tells Axios.

Keep reading... Show less

Insights

mail-copy

Get Goodhumans in your inbox

Most Read

More Stories