FCC Blames Wireless Carriers For Outages After Hurricane Michael, Pretends It's Not Also To Blame

Utility workers clear a path for new electrical cable after the line was damaged by Hurricane Michael on October 20, 2018 in Panama City, Florida. (Photo: Scott Olson / Getty)

An investigation by the Federal Communications Commission identified the causes of what it called “unacceptably slow restoration of wireless service” in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael, the Category 5 that ripped across Florida in October, killing dozens and causing some $36 billion in damage.

In some areas — such as Florida’s Bay and Gulf Counties — wireless service was down for over a week, leaving victims without a means of communication at a time when they needed it the most.

The FCC report is dreary. Its summary notes, for instance, that crews working to restore communications in disaster areas were often themselves responsible for perpetuating outages. A lack of coordination between the repair crews and other workers “unnecessary prolonged the time customers lacked service,” it says.

“The poor level of service several days after landfall by some wireless providers cannot simply be attributed to unforeseeable circumstances specific to those providers,” the report found.

As Ars Technica’s Jon Brodkin noted this afternoon, the report makes no mention of the fact that the FCC itself repealed regulations designed to head off this type of occurrence nearly two years ago.

In the wake of 2012's Hurricane Sandy—a storm famously followed by similarly prolonged service outages—the Obama administration established safeguards to prevent future delays. But almost immediately after taking over the FCC in 2017, its current Republican chairman, Ajit Pai, did away with this oversight power.

Harold Feld, senior VP at advocacy group Public Knowledge, noted in October: “The situation in Florida shows what happens when regulators abandon their responsibilities to protect the public based on unenforceable promises from companies eager to cut costs for maintenance and emergency preparedness.”

The storm, he said, should serve as a “wake up call” to states that have eliminated traditional oversight of telecommunications services and others considering doing the same.

Florida Governor Rick Scott also greatly diminished oversight of Florida’s telephone service with the Regulatory Reform Act of 2011.

Finding the situation “completely unacceptable,” the FCC offered numerous recommendations for improving wireless restoration processes in the future. But because of Pai’s efforts to reduce federal oversight of the telecom industry, they are merely that—recommendations.

The agency recommended, for example, that wireless carriers increase their coordination with federal disaster response agencies and emergency operations centres. Communications providers and power companies, it said, should “enter into coordination agreements regarding mutual preparation and restoration efforts that can be activity when a storm strikes.” But will they?

Thanks to Pai, it’s no longer the FCC’s job to force wireless providers to establish such protocols. Instead, it can keep pumping out useless post-incident reports like this one, which conspicuously avoids dissecting whether the agency’s own actions played a contributing role in perpetuating human suffering after a devastating natural disaster.

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