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The Complexities of Puerto Rico Rural Broadband

Delivering high-speed broadband to 3.2 million people on an island in the Caribbean is challenging enough, but hurricanes, earthquakes, COVID, and ongoing economic conditions have only compounded efforts to connect the rural areas of Puerto Rico as its residents wrestle with tasks that stateside areas take for granted. 

“I would like to say the challenges are all due to Hurricane Maria, but it isn’t,” said Maximiliano Trujillo, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Rural Development State Director, Puerto Rico. “There are historical challenges that Puerto Rico has had. Maria has exacerbated that need or highlighted more the need for broadband communications.”

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is in the process of promoting the deployment of advanced, hardened voice and broadband networks in Puerto Rico through the Bringing Puerto Rico Together Fund. With $127 million allocated in Stage 2 deployments to deliver fixed voice and broadband service across 1.22 million locations across the island, 40% of the locations are expected to be turned up by the end of 2024 and an additional 20% more expected to be added each year thereafter until 100% of the locations are covered. Around 69% of locations are expected to have access to download speeds of at least 100 Mbps or faster with 31% percent having download speeds of at least 1 Gbps. 

The FCC’s efforts are only the tip of the iceberg, with the USDA bringing in separate funding for creating opportunities and improving economic conditions outside of urban areas. “Rural Development has different areas of focus, providing mortgages for rural residents for housing and assistance to repair homes,” said Trujillo. “On infrastructure, [Rural Utilities Services] helps municipalities and communities to help build their community facilities and equipment. One series of grants that [USDA] have is distance learning and telemedicine programs that have a broadband component. We are living in a historic moment where the Biden-Harris administration has focused on Puerto Rico’s infrastructure needs and Rural Development is part of this effort to strengthen the economic development of the rural areas of the archipelago.”

Maximiliano J. Trujillo, State Director for Puerto Rico, USDA Rural Development, keynoted at Fiber Connect LATAM Puerto Rico about broadband’s impact on economic development. Source: FBA.

The goal of the Rural Utilities Services (RUS) loans, grants, and loan guarantee programs is to build the infrastructure or provide infrastructure improvements in rural communities to help expand economic opportunities and improve quality of life for rural residents, and to do so in a sustainable manner that puts investment into the area and continues growth in the community. 

USDA is funding fiber in Puerto Rico through the ReConnect program in areas where it is expected to make a significant impact in socially vulnerable communities. Service provider VPNet won an $8.8 million grant in 2022 to deploy fiber to seven public schools in the Arroyo and Patillas municipios that is also expected to reach roughly 200 households.

For Puerto Rico, USDA rural development efforts means funding electrical infrastructure projects to enable and support broadband deployment as well as keeping the other daily necessities of life going, including potable water, doctor’s offices, pharmacies, and the local supermarkets. 

“If you look at a [satellite photo] of Puerto Rico at night just before Maria hit, it looked like a flashlight in the Caribbean,” said Trujillo. “The night that Maria struck, it all went dark and it took years in some communities to get their power back. Without energy, you cannot have anything else. Because of Hurricane Maria, the system was proven to be completely unreliable. 

“There’s a strong drive to move into renewable energy. In the last fiscal year, we impacted 51 projects with grants over $8 million. With the private sector investment [match] of $18 million, we have solar panel investment with batteries of over $26 million in rural areas, that’s an investment not usually seen here, that’s a huge deal. With that, they can have operational internet and their Wi-Fi.”