Journalist Sandra Rodriguez was on WAPA radio, a commercial AM station in Puerto Rico, on September 21, 2017—the day after Hurricane Maria tore through the island, devastating nearly 90,000 homes and leaving millions of residents in the quiet darkness.
Rodriguez has a grim memory from that day: A caller to her radio station had cried out, “Help—my house is filling up with water!” before the line went dead, leaving Rodriguez to worry about the caller’s fate.
“I’m not talking about dollars and cents,” Rodriguez says. “We’re talking about humans of flesh and bone [who died] because of telecommunications. Because you couldn’t pick up the phone or message someone.”
Between 800 and 8,500 people lost their lives due to the damage and lack of basic services—including telecommunications—in the weeks and months following Hurricane Maria, a recent Harvard study estimated. A subsequent study out of George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health gave an estimate of 2,975 total excess deaths and calculated that the risk of death during the study period (September 2017 to February 2018) was 45% higher for regions of low socioeconomic development.
A year after Hurricanes Maria and Irma, telecommunications infrastructure problems persist. Phone calls drop and power sometimes vanishes completely. And internet speeds have yet to fully recover, leaving hundreds of thousands of people with speeds 10 times slower than the average on the continental United States.
By analyzing more than 250,000 Measurement Lab internet speed tests in Puerto Rico from 2009 to the present, NOVA confirmed what people in Puerto Rico have known implicitly for a long time: Hurricane Maria hit an island whose internet speeds had only recently started improving.
While the force of Irma and Maria’s lashing winds and rain tore apart towers and communication lines, slow and unequal internet access has long plagued Puerto Rico and its economy. Internet issues have starved nascent tech, video game, and video industries, Puerto Rican tech commenter Jay Fonseca reports, and Puerto Rican journalist Obed Borrero asks, “Are we condemned to be an island for tourism alone?”
From 2009 to 2016, internet speeds nearly doubled within the continental U.S., but remained largely the same in Puerto Rico. Then, in 2016, the island’s internet stagnation ended. Speeds began to increase, and continued to increase, through September 2017. Experts have competing theories as to why, but most agree that the increase is likely due to a combination of factors including federal and Puerto Rican government investments (like the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s BTOP program), private investment, and increased affordability. After removing outliers—those with particularly poor or advanced service (more on our methodology here)—we can see that Puerto Rico’s average download speed nearly tripled from 1.75 megabytes per second (Mbps) in the beginning of 2016 to over 4.5 Mbps in August 2017.
Then, with internet speeds at their peak, Hurricane Maria hit. Average speed plummeted, falling below 3 Mbps—for those lucky enough to have internet at all. Internet speeds didn’t approach their pre-storm levels until August 2018.
Even the seemingly unequivocal good of internet improvement came at a cost. Improvements in 2016 and 2017 resulted in greater inequality of internet access across the island. In June 2018, the 25% of users with the fastest service saw speeds of nearly 10 Mbps, an average speed in the continental U.S. Meanwhile, the 25% of users with the slowest service saw speeds below 1.5 Mbps—half the recommended speed for SD video on Netflix.
Before Irma and Maria, telecom companies found ways to provide high-speed internet using “ancient networks of copper around the island,” which Javier Rua, president of the Puerto Rican telecommunications authority Junta Reglamentadora de Telecomunicaciones (JRT) from 2013 to 2017, calls “basically a 19th century technology.” These “ancient networks” were ingenious feats of engineering for their time, but they were susceptible to the sharp winds and rain of the 2017 hurricane season.
Even new cables were put at risk by telecommunications companies when they strung them to existing telephone poles instead of building more. The number of fiber-optic cables on telephone poles weakened the poles’ resistance to wind, former PREPA Executive Director Josue Colon told Voice of America. While the usual wind load capacity of those poles is 140 to 155 mph—resistance approaching Hurricane Maria’s fastest gales—when over-encumbered with new cables, their capacity fell to 90 to 105 mph.
While telecommunications companies reported investing nearly $4 billion in Puerto Rico from 2004 to 2015, Rodriguez found that their investments weren’t always storm-resilient. And, she could see a unique and dangerous chaos forming in Puerto Rico even before Hurricane Irma hit on September 6, 2017.
At 2:23 am on September 5, just hours before Hurricane Irma pushed more than one million Puerto Ricans into disconnected darkness, Rodriguez wrote a blog entry asking: “What happens if Hurricane Irma leaves you without internet, without radio, without TV, and without a phone? Is Puerto Rico prepared to endure a total lack of communication?” In it, she stressed the proliferation of new radio towers over the improvement of old ones, and the danger of power and telecommunications cables often left suspended in mid-air rather than being buried underground.
Rodriguez would be proven right. Hurricane Maria downed 1,360 of Puerto Rico’s 1,600 cell phone towers and 85% of above-ground telephone and internet cables.
To make communication matters worse, Puerto Rico’s emergency radio station WPTZ852, normally used by management agencies across the island and the National Guard, was off the air during the hurricane, but not due to technical issues. Radio stations require FCC licenses to operate, which are typically renewed every five or ten years. In 2011, the FCC issued a use license for WPTZ852. WPTZ852 has a 700 MHz spectrum, which carries signals that travel longer distances than the higher frequencies used by other wireless systems. Its license had an expiration date of May 2017.
From February to May 2017, the FCC sent monthly emails to the Puerto Rican government, reminding it to apply to renew the license before it expired. Having received no response, the FCC canceled the license on July 15, 2017. Luis Arocho, Puerto Rico’s Chief Information Officer, gave no comment to NOVA when asked about the situation.
Then on August 31, 2017, Abner Gomez Cortes, Executive Director of the Puerto Rican Emergency Management Authority, contacted the FCC to renew the expired WPTZ852 license. In his petition, he claimed that the renewal reminders were “never received by appropriate personnel.” The day before Cortes contacted the FCC, Tropical Storm Irma developed from a wave of low pressure near Cape Verde, Africa, and was headed toward Puerto Rico. Less than a week after, Hurricane Irma’s eye passed just north of the island. Hurricane Maria struck 15 days later.
A response from the FCC still had not arrived. Officials routinely grant renewal applications that come within 30 days after expiration, but applications after 30 days take longer, explains an FCC official who wishes to remain anonymous.
On Friday, September 22, 2017—two days after Hurricane Maria—the FCC approved the application, stating a dismissal would be “unduly harsh and contrary to public interest.” In the decision, Michael J. Wilhelm, the Acting Chief of the Policy and Licensing Division of the FCC, reiterated that, generally, “A licensee will not be afforded special consideration when it fails to file a timely renewal application simply because it engages in public safety activities.” In this case, the FCC would make an exception.
So the license was renewed the following business day, Monday, September 25, five days after Hurricane Maria struck.
WAPA radio—the station that hosted Rodriguez’ conversation with the radio caller, which flooding cut short—was one of the only stations to broadcast continuously throughout Hurricane Maria. Because high-speed internet is inaccessible to many Puerto Ricans (the poorest 40% of the population pay nearly one-fifth of their income to get mobile broadband while the wealthiest 20% pay one-fiftieth of their income for fast mobile internet), WAPA’s broadcasts provided the only contact many Puerto Ricans had during the storm.
In a way, the stagnation of Puerto Rico’s internet is inseparable from the larger economic forces battering the Commonwealth. With the Puerto Rican fiscal control board tightening the budget to pay creditors who own the equivalent of 70% of Puerto Rico's GDP in debt, the pool of money and incentives for resilient internet improvements is shrinking.
With the exception of T-Mobile, Rodriguez explains, telecom companies won’t “show their face” and governments point their fingers back at industry. And 3.1 million Puerto Ricans—each an American citizen by law—are affected by these breakdowns in communication.
“Somebody has to be accountable,” Rodriguez says.