Telecommunications: FCC Assisted in Hurricane Maria Network Restoration, but a Clarified Disaster Response Role and Enhanced Communication Are Needed

GAO-21-297 Published: Apr 29, 2021. Publicly Released: Jun 01, 2021.
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Fast Facts

Para la versión de esta página en español, ver a GAO-22-105311.

Federal agencies faced unprecedented challenges responding to 2017's Hurricane Maria, which caused extensive damage in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The Federal Communications Commission's part included gathering network outage information and creating a task force to support communications restoration.

We found unclear federal guidance on FCC's role in disaster response, which could have contributed to confusion and delays. Also, FCC has not provided a complete and accurate account of its disaster response, which could help with preparation for future disasters. Our recommendations address these issues.

Infrastructure damage from Hurricane Maria in the U.S. Virgin Islands, September 2017

A woman walking in the middle of a street with broken utility poles and downed powerlines caused by Hurricane Maria

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Highlights

Para la versión de esta página en español, ver a GAO-22-105311.

What GAO Found

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) took several actions to support telecommunications restoration following Hurricane Maria. For example, FCC collected network outage information, provided staff assistance to Puerto Rico, created the Hurricane Recovery Task Force to support communications restoration in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and made funds available for network restoration. However, GAO found that FCC's disaster response role was unclear in guidance published by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), even though the guidance states that all levels of government should understand their respective roles. In particular, DHS did not define specific actions for FCC in the emergency support function guidance related to restoring communications infrastructure; this lack of clarity could have contributed to confusion and delays in the hurricane's aftermath. By updating the emergency support guidance with FCC's role clearly defined, DHS could help to reduce confusion and leverage FCC's knowledge on new or evolving technologies that could assist in faster network recovery following disasters.

Aerial View of Downed Tower in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, September 2017

Aerial View of Downed Tower in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, September 2017

FCC identified lessons learned to enhance its disaster response and recovery efforts following the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season and issued a report in August 2018 that included observations from four hurricanes, including Hurricane Maria. For example, FCC noted that it could enhance its role in training and improve its coordination with federal partners. However, specifically related to Hurricane Maria, GAO found that FCC obtained limited public input and that the Hurricane Recovery Task Force's efforts lacked transparency because FCC had not publicly communicated the task force's actions or findings. Lacking transparent communications on the task force's actions and findings, the public does not have a complete and accurate account of FCC's response efforts for Hurricane Maria; such an account could aid future disaster preparation. By publicly reporting the task force's efforts, FCC could help ensure territorial government officials and others understand what FCC has accomplished and what additional actions are needed to build telecommunications networks that are more resilient.

Why GAO Did This Study

Hurricane Maria battered Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in 2017, causing great physical harm to residents and severely damaging the islands' critical infrastructure, including telecommunications networks (see photo). Federal agencies faced unprecedented challenges in the hurricane's aftermath that complicated efforts to address telecommunications outages. While DHS is the lead agency in federal disaster response, FCC has a supporting role related to telecommunications issues.

GAO was asked to review FCC's response to telecommunications outages after Hurricane Maria. This report examines (1) FCC's actions to support telecommunications restoration after Hurricane Maria and the extent to which FCC's disaster response role is clearly defined, and (2) FCC's efforts to identify lessons learned with public input and the extent to which FCC publicly communicated those efforts. GAO analyzed agency reports, assessed agency efforts against applicable criteria, and interviewed government officials and industry and advocacy representatives to obtain a range of non-generalizable viewpoints.

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Recommendations

GAO is making two recommendations including that DHS should update its emergency support function guidance to clearly define FCC's disaster response role, and that FCC should enhance the transparency of its operations by publicly reporting on its Hurricane Recovery Task Force. FCC and DHS concurred with the recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Homeland Security The Secretary of Homeland Security, in consultation with FCC, should update Emergency Support Function #2 to list specific roles and responsibilities for FCC, including identifying new or evolving technologies that could assist disaster response efforts and supporting training or exercises on the appropriate use of such technologies prior to disasters. (Recommendation 1)
Closed – Implemented
In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in September 2017, millions of people in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands experienced severe telecommunications outages for months. DHS's National Response Framework describes how federal, state, local, and nongovernmental entities should respond to disasters. The National Response Framework contains Emergency Support Functions, which are the key response-coordinating structures at the federal level, and Emergency Support Function #2 guidance coordinates federal actions to help restore communications infrastructure and services. In 2021, we reported that as the expert agency on telecommunications, FCC supported disaster response and recovery following Hurricane Maria. However, we found that FCC's role in responding to disasters was undefined in the National Response Framework and, more specifically, that the Emergency Support Function #2 guidance did not include any specific actions for FCC. Further, we found government organizations, both federal and local, might not be fully aware of the extent of FCC's capabilities involving new or evolving technologies. During a disaster, there is little time to learn about such technologies and their appropriate use when critical sectors require telecommunications services immediately. As FCC continues to respond to emergencies, it is imperative that DHS define specific roles and responsibilities for FCC in its emergency support function guidance to avoid confusion during a disaster. Therefore, we recommended that DHS, in consultation with FCC, update Emergency Support Function #2 to list specific roles and responsibilities for FCC. In 2021, we confirmed that DHS coordinated with FCC to update Emergency Support Function #2 and clarified roles and responsibilities for FCC and various other federal, state, local, and nongovernmental partners. According to FCC officials, in coordinating with DHS, they offered content for the update and noted that they would continue to participate in Emergency Support Function #2 planning. FCC officials stated that as part of the update on roles and responsibilities, FCC would, for example, take measures to enable the temporary provision of emergency communications and the rapid repair and restoration of permanent communications services and infrastructure. By articulating clear roles and responsibilities for FCC in the Emergency Support Function #2 guidance, DHS can make better use of FCC's technological expertise and reduce confusion during a disaster.
Federal Communications Commission The Chair of FCC should enhance the transparency and accountability of FCC's operations by publicly reporting on the actions and findings of its Hurricane Recovery Task Force and determine if any changes in policy are needed to ensure FCC has transparent operations for any future disaster-related task forces. (Recommendation 2)
Open
As of September 2022, FCC noted that it is reviewing and assessing the actions of the Hurricane Recovery Task Force and is taking action to improve the transparency of FCC's disaster-related work. FCC also released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in October 2021 that seeks comment on how FCC can improve its situational awareness during storms and the transparency of its work. The notice specifically seeks comment on improving transparency into how the Wireless Network Resiliency Cooperative Framework is implemented during disasters. When we confirm that FCC publicly reports on the actions and findings of its Hurricane Recovery Task Force, we will update the status of this recommendation.

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