FCC's Ajit Pai asks carriers to waive bills for Hurricane Michael victims

The FCC chairman also calls on wireless carriers to let victims "change carriers without penalty."

Hurricane Michael, which made landfall Oct. 10, tore down electrical wires and ripped apart fiber networks needed for broadband and mobile phone service. 
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai on Tuesday asked wireless carriers to waive bills for people affected by Hurricane Michael.

The Category 4 storm, with 155-mile-per-hour winds, made landfall in the Florida Panhandle on Oct. 10. It tore down electrical wires and ripped apart fiber networks needed for delivering broadband and mobile phone service. The death toll reached 19 on Saturday.

"Even though efforts to restore communications services have been going well in most of the areas affected by Hurricane Michael, the slow progress in restoring wireless service in areas close to where the hurricane made landfall is completely unacceptable," Pai said. "While the FCC has been in regular contact with companies serving the affected areas, I'm concerned that their actions on the ground aren't matching the urgency that we have conveyed during those conversations."

Pai said he's joining Florida Gov. Rick Scott in asking that carriers not only waive bills for customers in affected areas this month, but also "allow them to change carriers without penalty." Pai said carriers need to publicly disclose how they plan to restore service to Floridians, and he's asked the FCC's Public Safety & Homeland Security Bureau to investigate restoration efforts. 

Verizon said Monday that service had been restored to 98 percent of its affected customers in Florida, but areas around Panama City, Panama City Beach and surrounding communities still didn't have reliable cell service. AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile also said they had restored service in most areas but still were experiencing outages in the Florida Panhandle. The FCC said Monday that around 300,000 households still didn't have home internet, phone or TV service in Florida, Georgia and Alabama on Sunday.

AT&T said it's deployed 15 portable cell cites to the most damaged areas to provide connectivity. Starting Oct. 10, the company rolled out credits to customers in Bay, Calhoun, Franklin, Gulf, Liberty, Taylor and Wakulla counties, said AT&T spokesman Jim Greer. 

"We plan to continue extending these credits through Oct. 21, and will continue as conditions require," Greer said. "Our crews continue working day and night to ensure continuing connectivity for the affected areas."

Sprint said it would also provide one-month credits to customers in Bay, Calhoun, Franklin, Gulf, Jackson, Liberty and Washington counties.

"Customers should continue to pay the amount indicated on their bill, but be assured that the credits will be applied in future cycles," Sprint said in a statement.

T-Mobile CEO John Legere tweeted that the company has taken steps to help customers impacted by the storm until service is fully restored. That includes providing free data, text and calls since Oct. 10, waiving fees for customers joining or leaving T-Mobile and waiving device replacement fees, he said. 

"The destruction by Hurricane Michael in FL is horrific & heartbreaking," Legere tweeted. "We've been focused on helping the area recover & fully agree with @FLGovScott that ALL wireless providers should be aggressive and transparent in their network status and cust remedies."

Verizon didn't respond to a request for comment.

First published Oct. 16, 1:11 p.m. PT. 
Updates, 2:03 p.m.: Adds comment from AT&T; 5:12 p.m.: Includes comment from T-Mobile; Oct. 17 at 4:32 p.m.: Adds comment from Sprint.

NASA turns 60: The space agency has taken humanity farther than anyone else, and it has plans to go further.

Taking It to Extremes: Mix insane situations -- erupting volcanoes, nuclear meltdowns, 30-foot waves -- with everyday tech. Here's what happens.