Approximately 2.8 million Americans call Puerto Rico home. Known for its colorful architecture, cobblestone streets, and rich culture, this U.S. territory is also known for a stubborn digital divide.
Puerto Ricans struggled with reliable connectivity solutions long before Hurricane Maria ravaged the island. Limited wireline infrastructure forces communities, particularly outside of San Juan, to rely heavily on wireless solutions and public WiFi access points.
It is also important to note that Hurricane Irma and Maria did not only destroy Puerto Rico’s telecommunications infrastructure, it triggered the longest running electric blackout in U.S. history. Incessant challenges related to broadband access and adoption are only complicated by the fact that some communities, in 2021, still do not have reliable electricity.
Commissioner Alexandra Fernandez Navarro of the Puerto Rico Public Service Regulatory Board is working to change Puerto Rico’s connectivity story. A long-time communications advocate, she is focused on increasing service options and addressing the high cost of service in every possible forum.
Similar to communities on the mainland, the COVID-19 pandemic revealed the depravity of the digital divide. For many Puerto Ricans, working from home was simply impossible. Much needed access to telehealth was also remote.
When 36% of Puerto Rico residents live below the poverty line, fixed broadband access is a luxury. Cell phones are oftentimes the only way to get online. Many residents still do not have broadband access of any kind.
In 2020, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved additional funding for the Uniendo a Puerto Rico Fund to increase broadband availability throughout Puerto Rico. While it is expected to improve access for many residents, federal programs have not historically been able to close connectivity gaps in low-income communities.
Aware of the impact that state commissioners can have on broadband policy, Fernandez Navarro has stressed the need for Puerto Rico to be represented in national groups, like the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, and before the FCC, most recently on the Disaster Response and Recovery Working Group. In those forums and others, Fernandez Navorro seeks opportunities to elevate and document connectivity challenges that Puerto Ricans face on a daily basis. She is painfully aware that finding the tech support and equipment to deploy broadband in mountainous areas is sometimes impossible. In countless communities, she can attest that the lack of computing devices and low digital literacy are significant, ongoing barriers.
This Women’s History Month, Next Century Cities celebrates Commissioner Alexandra Fernandez Navarro’s efforts to improve digital opportunities and strengthen broadband network resilience. Her work ensures that policies aimed at closing the digital divide reflects the underrepresented people they are intended to serve.
Are you interested in learning more about the state of connectivity in Puerto Rico? Join Next Century Cities’ Francella Ochillo and Libraries Without Borders Katherine Trujillo for a 30 minute webinar with the Commissioner on Thursday, April 15th, at 11:00am EST. Register here.