Waive wireless bills for some Hurricane Michael victims: FCC chief

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai on Tuesday called for wireless carriers to waive October bills for people hardest hit by Hurricane Michael after some Florida residents expressed frustration in getting mobile phone service restored.

Amanda Jones, 34, of Lynn Haven, takes advantage of free wireless internet at a Wal-Mart to check her phone, following cellular network disruptions in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael in Lynn Haven, Florida, U.S., October 14, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester

Pai also said consumers in those areas should be allowed to switch carriers without paying a penalty.

At least 18 deaths in four states have been blamed on Michael, which crashed into the Florida Panhandle on Oct. 10 as one of the most powerful storms on record to hit the continental United States. The storm damaged fiber networks and electrical wires necessary for broadband and mobile phone service.

Pai said in a written statement the progress in restoring service is “completely unacceptable” and that the FCC will investigate the outages.

The request from the chair of the nation’s telecommunications regulator came after Florida Governor Rick Scott, who is locked in a tough race for the U.S. Senate, earlier on Tuesday called on carriers to waive bills for customers without service and allow consumers to change carriers without penalty.

Verizon Communications Inc has been criticized by some consumers and government officials for an extended lack of service since Michael hit. The company has attributed the delay in part to significant damage to fiber connections in Florida’s Panhandle and the strength of the storm.

On Tuesday, the FCC said that 61.5 percent of cell sites remain out of service in Bay County, Florida, down from 65.4 percent on Monday.

Scott said “telecommunications companies should be open and transparent with Floridians and do so with a clearly communicated plan to quickly restore service.”

U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat running for re-election against Scott, asked carriers to “provide a 60-day moratorium on late fees, interest accrual, penalties and any other unnecessary costs to give people time to recover and get back on their feet.”

In a letter to Verizon on Tuesday, Nelson said “too many of your Florida customers in the Panhandle are still not able to use your network. This is not acceptable, especially when your competitors have been restoring service much faster.”

Verizon and Sprint Corp did not immediately comment.

AT&T Inc spokesman Michael Balmoris said the company has implemented credits for customers in hard-hit areas and plans to extend those credits through Oct. 21. AT&T plans to continue those “as conditions require.”

AT&T has deployed 15 large-scale portable cell sites to the most storm damaged areas.

Reporting by David Shepardson in Washington; Editing by Leslie Adler and Matthew Lewis

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