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FCC says Hurricane Michael victims in Florida deserve a month of free cell service


Malinda Graham checks her phone at a charging station while waiting out Hurricane Michael at Lawton Chiles High School in Tallahassee. The school was turned into a shelter during the storm. (Kevin D. Liles for The Washington Post)

The Federal Communications Commission slammed the nation’s wireless carriers Tuesday for failing to quickly restore service to Hurricane Michael victims — and demanded that the companies compensate Florida residents with a month of free cellular service.

Telecom regulators have repeatedly pressed for the companies to act quickly to restore cell service in the wake of the storm, which left hundreds of thousands without power in the region and killed more than a dozen people.

In a statement Tuesday, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai called the carriers’ lack of progress “completely unacceptable” and said he intends to launch an investigation. He urged the companies to “waive the bills of Floridians in these affected areas for the month of October.” Pai also called for allowing residents to switch providers “without penalty” and for the firms to explain the steps they are taking to restore service.

T-Mobile and Sprint did not immediately respond to a request for comment. AT&T, in a statement, said it had begun offering free cell credit to customers in seven counties: Bay, Calhoun, Franklin, Gulf, Liberty, Taylor and Wakulla.

“We plan to continue extending these credits through October 21st, and will continue as conditions require,” AT&T said. “Our crews continue working day and night to ensure continuing connectivity for the affected areas.”

Verizon said in a statement that it is “making progress every hour” and that customers in Bay and Gulf counties would automatically receive 3 months of free service.

Last week, thousands of telecommunications workers began streaming into Florida to repair downed networks. But the results have been less than satisfying, according to Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R), who said this week the lack of infrastructure was preventing victims from getting crucial information about where and how to receive food and water supplies.

Even the government of Bay County, Fla., was having difficulty functioning because of a local Verizon outage, Scott said. He added, “In other places, Verizon is up, and AT&T is down.”

Wireless carriers typically take steps to harden their networks ahead of a severe weather event, including rolling out temporary cell sites, supplying towers with emergency generators and other precautionary measures.

Still, the damage from Hurricane Michael has been extensive. The storm also intensified unexpectedly after making landfall, worsening over North Carolina and creating power outages affecting half a million in Virginia. President Trump said this week he intends to ask Congress for emergency aid funding.

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