FCC Directs First 5G-Focused Universal Service Funding to Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands

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Both territories’ communications infrastructures were ravaged by hurricanes in recent years. 

Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands will receive almost a quarter of a billion dollars from the Federal Communications Commission’s Universal Service Fund over the next three years to deliberately bolster mobile broadband networks, the agency unveiled Monday. 

Included in the newly-authorized $237.9 million in funding for the U.S. territories is $59.5 million that’s explicitly devoted to the deployment of fifth-generation wireless networks—marking the first time the commission has ever awarded universal service funding to specifically target a U.S. buildout of 5G connectivity. 

“Over two years ago, communications infrastructure in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands was devastated by Hurricanes Irma and Maria,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement. “The commission acted quickly to direct Universal Service Fund support to help restore communications networks damaged by the hurricanes. And through today’s action, we are taking a major step toward expanding, improving, and hardening mobile broadband networks on the islands.”

Pai added that he is “especially pleased” that the financial boost will enable people across the islands to harness the benefits that 5G promises. Previously, FCC already allocated roughly $130 million in USF to carriers serving the two areas to help confront the hurricane disruptions.

But in providing these latest subsidies, the FCC directed eligible mobile carriers that offered services to PR and USVI ahead of the hurricanes, and elected to receive the monetary support, to complete a “detailed disaster preparation and response plan committing to measures and procedures for responding to future disasters.” The commission required detailed insight into how the networks would effectively strengthen infrastructure, ensure network diversity, ensure backup power, monitor networks, and prepare for emergencies, the agency noted. 

And following that review, the FCC's Wireline Competition Bureau approved approximately $4 million for AT&T in the Virgin Islands, as well as $97.8 million more for AT&T, $76.6 million for Puerto Rico Telephone Company, and $59.6 million for T-Mobile in Puerto Rico.

Following the announcement the agency’s authorization was praised by several individuals on Twitter, including from Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla., who said he was “pleased” with the move, and highlighted that the House Energy and Commerce Committee “has fought to strengthen” internet and cellphone service in both territories since Hurricane Maria.