U.S. agency proposes nearly $1 billion to revamp Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands communications

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The chairman of the U.S. telecoms regulator proposed on Tuesday directing $954 million to restore and expand communications networks in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands that were heavily damaged during the 2017 hurricane season.

Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission Ajit Pai speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Maryland, U.S., February 23, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Wireless and broadband communications networks in the U.S. island territories were devastated after Hurricanes Maria and Irma swept through the region in September.

As of Monday, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said 4.3 percent of cell sites in Puerto Rico and 14 percent of sites in the U.S. Virgin Islands remained out of service.

“The FCC’s work is far from over,” FCC chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement. “With the 2018 hurricane season less than three months away, we need to take bold and decisive action.”

Pai wants to spend $64 million on short-term restoration, $631 million on long-term funding for the restoration and expansion of fixed broadband and $259 million on medium-term funding for the restoration and expansion of 4G LTE mobile broadband connectivity.

The plan needs FCC approval and would be largely funded by the Universal Service Fund, which provides federal subsidies to companies to make communications services more accessible and affordable in places where the cost is high.

In October, the FCC approved $77 million to fund repairs in the islands.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, is visiting Puerto Rico this week and Pai will visit Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands later this week.

Reporting by David Shepardson; editing by Diane Craft and Rosalba O’Brien