As of Friday, several Florida counties devastated by Hurricane Michael have registered double-digit outages in their wireless service, which is currently one of the only means available for Michael’s victims in those areas to get any help from the outside world.
Four Florida counties are still registering double-digit-percentage outages in wireless service, according to the FCC’s latest status report — Bay at 47 percent, Gulf at 34.8 percent, Washington at 20.5 percent and Gadsden at 19.4 percent.
The failure of the telecoms to restore service has created a handy political football for Florida’s Senate Race between Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Rick Scott, both of whom had slammed these admittedly easy targets for their slow response to the disaster. Trump FCC head and former telecom lawyer Ajit Pai—whose claim to fame thus far has been to work on behalf of the telecommunications industry to end net neutrality and open the door to massive fee hikes—took the out-of-character step of condemning the telecoms as well (something he notably did not do in the wake of the near total obliteration of wireless service following Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico).
As noted in the Politico article linked above, the speed by which wireless service is restored in the areas devastated by Michael may actually decide the Florida Senate election, as well as other down-ballot elections in the state. So it’s more than useful to trace the root cause of the widespread outages, and more importantly, why service is taking so long by the telecom companies to be restored.
The main culprits appear to be Trump FCC head Ajit Pai and Republican Senate candidate Rick Scott.
As pointed out by ArsTechnica, in his rush to radically deregulate the telecom industry, Pai specifically repealed the very rules that President Obama passed following Superstorm Sandy. Rules which would have protected consumers from the same lengthy power and service outages that victims of Hurricane Michael are experiencing right now.
Among other things, the November 2017 FCC action eliminated a requirement that telcos turning off copper networks must provide Americans with service at least as good as those old copper networks. This change lets carriers replace wireline service with mobile service only, even if the new mobile option wouldn’t pass a “functional test” that Pai’s FCC eliminated.
Worse, in June of 2018, Pai deregulated additional rules—in order to make it easier for such telecom companies to discontinue service following a natural disaster.
Pai’s excuse for eliminating these rules was that they prevented the telecoms from upgrading their networks from copper to fiber. The telecoms were happy, since upgrading to fiber networks in densely populated areas resulted in a big financial payoff for them. But not so much in the rural areas.
So for the most part, they continued to drag their feet in upgrading their networks in rural areas, such as the ones hit by Hurricane Michael. Meanwhile, they no longer had any obligation to provide equivalent service in the rural areas in the event of a natural disaster, the way they had once been mandated to do so under President Obama’s rules. It was really a win-win for them. What we see happening right now in Florida is the result.
And we can’t forget that Governor Rick Scott, the thoroughly bought-out corporate stooge that he is, also jumped on the de-regulation bandwagon. The ArsTechnica article quotes a lengthy post authored this week by Harold Feld, counsel for the consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge.
“In 2011, Governor Scott signed the ‘Regulatory Reform Act of 2011,’ which eliminated virtually all oversight of Florida’s residential telephone service,” Feld wrote. “This included repeal of Florida’s ‘Carrier of Last Resort’ (COLR) requirements—rules that require carriers to provide service to everyone in the state—as well as repeal of Public Service Commission (PSC) regulations governing service blackouts, timeliness of repairs, or regulation of customer billing.”
“The deregulation was so thorough that the Florida PSC is not even allowed to take consumer complaints about residential phone service, which conveniently prevents the collection of any data that might show deregulation has costs in terms of consumer welfare,” Feld also wrote in a second, more-detailed blog post yesterday.
So while Pai made it easier for the telecoms to escape their obligations to provide adequate service in times of unprecedented and life-threatening natural disasters, Scott made sure that no one could ever find out just how bad the situation could get. Feld elaborates:
What neither Pai nor Scott mention is their own rol[e] in creating this sorry state of affairs. Their radical deregulation of the telephone industry, despite the lessons of previous natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy, guaranteed that providers would chose to cut costs and increase profits rather than invest in hardening networks or emergency preparedness. That is how markets actually work in the real world (as opposed to in the delightful dereg fantasy land dreamed up by hired economists).
Pai and Scott continue to search for a scapegoat for this crisis, but to end this blame game, they really just need to share a mirror.
This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.