Rebuild oversight of cellphone and internet firms | Editorial

For all the post-Irma anger — justified or not — at Florida Power & Light, the poor performance of telecommunications companies was even more frustrating.

Floridians who never lost electricity because of Irma lost their landline phone, TV and internet service. Floridians whose electricity was restored still went without service for as long as 12 days from Comcast, AT&T and others. Delray Beach Mayor Cary Glickstein said of Comcast, “If I could fine them, I would.”

For the increasing number of Floridians who work at home, a lack of internet service means a lack of income. Failures compromised home security systems, just as looting became a potential problem. Though cellphone service came back quicker in most places, more and more people use the internet for phone calls. Businesses rely on internet service to communicate, gain information and place or receive orders. Without it, some can accept sales only in cash.

As with FPL, customers took to social media seeking answers from unresponsive companies whose representatives offered little information about how many people were affected and when their service might be restored. FPL at least has acknowledged its communications problems and pledged to do better. The Florida Public Service Commission will review FPL’s overall performance before, during and after Irma. But there’s little way to hold the telecommunications companies accountable.

Though the PSC never has regulated wireless services, the commission did once regulate what a PSC spokeswoman called “wireline” services — Internet and cable TV. All that changed six years ago.

In 2011 the Legislature overwhelmingly passed — and Gov. Rick Scott signed — a bill that essentially deregulated telecommunications and left the commission with what the spokeswoman called only “limited authority” over wireline services. And “limited” is being generous.

The commission’s annual report for 2011 summarized the effects of the legislation:

Among other things, House Bill 1231 ended the commission’s ability to set rate caps on services. It also removed “most telecommunications-related consumer protection and assistance, and oversight of telecommunications service quality.”

In addition, the legislation reduced or eliminated the commission’s ability to require companies to tell new customers the lowest-price option. And it ended the power of regulators to order inspections of poles, to act against unfair pricing and to “resolve billing and service complaints.”

Most important at this time, the commission can’t include telecommunications companies in its Irma review. Add to that outrage that the Federal Communications Commission doesn’t require telecommunications companies to reveal how many customers they have in an area or how many lost service in a storm.

An FCC spokesman said the agency plans to hold hearings on hurricane performance, but the emphasis for now is on restoring service in Florida, Texas and especially Puerto Rico. “There is an active relief and recovery effort underway, and a field hearing at this time would serve as a major distraction.”

When the concern was only Hurricane Harvey, not Irma and Maria, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel called for the FCC to require telecommunications companies to rebuild their networks, as FPL began doing after the hurricanes of 2004 and 2005. She wanted to make sure that areas where service failures were widespread “are not permanently relegated to the wrong side of the digital divide.”

Recent history, however, shows that telecommunications companies have resisted almost every effort to regulate them. The 2011 legislation in Florida was just the latest in a series of foolish deregulation favors for the industry. It’s been the prevailing attitude in Florida toward all industries. Perhaps 11 people in the care of a Hollywood nursing home wouldn’t have died if the state had required such facilities to have generators.

At the federal level, Florida’s congressional delegation should demand that the FCC conduct a meaningful review of internet, TV and phone companies and, if necessary, require hardening of systems. If company negligence led to service failures, customers should not have to pay.

Unfortunately, new FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s priority has been eliminating Obama-era regulations. Pai, whom President Trump nominated, echoes the Florida Legislature in saying that government needs to unburden businesses.

In Florida, the Legislature should restore some of the Public Service Commission‘s oversight of telecommunications, such as the ability to review performance during hurricanes. FPL may be a regulated monopoly, but there’s hardly a wide choice for consumers when it comes to internet and TV.

Important as electricity is, telecommunications services have become nearly as important. Adequately preparing Florida for hurricanes means treating them that way.

Editorials are the opinion of the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board and written by one of its members or a designee. The Editorial Board consists of Editorial Page Editor Rosemary O’Hara, Elana Simms, Andy Reid, Deborah Ramirez and Editor-in-Chief Howard Saltz.