The 51st State: What Puerto Rican Statehood Could Mean for Telecommunications on the Island

by Latoya Livingston on November 18, 2012

What could it mean for Puerto Rico’s digital divide if Congress, and America, fully welcomed the island nation into our fold?  Two weeks ago, while the rest of the country was heavily anticipating election results, Puerto Rican voters were quietly casting their ballots for the first time in 45 years in favor of the island becoming the 51st U.S. state.  The referendum consisted of two questions: first, it asked voters if they wanted to keep their current U.S. commonwealth status; and second, it asked if voters wanted to become a U.S. state, an independent country, or a freely associated state – a type of independence in close alliance with the United States.

But many are decrying this historic vote as a “statistical fiction.”  Although the measure was technically approved with a 61 percent yea vote, over 470,000 people (or almost 12 percent of those who otherwise voted) intentionally, and noticeably, left the question blank, meaning that statehood did not have the support of the majority of Puerto Rico’s electorate.  This has led to the general consensus that it will take a deal more than a statistical fiction to push Congress to proceed toward Puerto Rico’s transition.

Puerto Rico is rife with problems that make it digitally challenged, including low adoption rates, lack of deployment, and lack of access to government programs to bridge the digital divide, some of which BBSJ expounded upon earlier this year.  Nonetheless, the island nation is forwarding the referendum results to the White House and Congress, which will then decide whether to go through with the process of turning Puerto Rico into the 51st state. 

Could the Statehood of Puerto Rico Really Happen?

Not anytime soon.  Under Article IV, Section Three of the United States Constitution, which outlines the relationship among the states, Congress has the power to admit new states to the union. The first step is technically completed; the territory chose statehood in a plebiscite, which is a non-binding referendum that allows people to express their opinions for or against a proposal.  However, some have argued that the decision to leave the ballot question on statehood blank accounted for a boycott against Puerto Rico’s New Progressive Party’s (PNP) strong stance in favor of statehood.  This belief is reflected by the fact that the PNP lost the governorship, 14 towns they previously controlled, major seats in the legislature, and most surprisingly, the mayorship of the City of San Juan.  Therefore, true sentiment on the island, or the “real” numbers, would likely amount to 52 percent voting to remain a U.S. territory or have “sovereign associated” status; 45 percent voting for U.S. statehood; and 4 percent voting in favor of independence.  In fact, the statehood referendum actually lost a percent of its support from the last time that it was put on the ballot in 1998.

Although Puerto Rico statehood is highly unlikely, at least for now, what would statehood mean to the digitally challenged island?

More Access to Government Programs

Recently, Congress and the FCC have earned a reputation for excluding Puerto Rico in their broadband initiatives, restricting many of those programs to the 50 states.  Unfortunately for the people of Puerto Rico, the island needs U.S. involvement to build out broadband infrastructure but has yet to see much help.

According to Connected Nation, in March 2012, the FCC failed to allocate any funds to Puerto Rico out of a $300 million capital injection for 2012 broadband build out.   Although Puerto Rico received $38.6 million for its broadband infrastructure under the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP), the organization most recently awarded West Virginia, Hawaii, and Alaska $192, $96.5, and $62.5 million, respectively, for similar infrastructure programs.  Based on the most recent U.S. Census Bureau findings, Puerto Rico has the third highest population density, 1,083 inhabitants per square mile, of U.S. states and territories, ranking between New Jersey and Rhode Island.  Comparatively, New Jersey received $102,178,314 and Rhode Island received $84,279,345 in BTOP funds to build infrastructure.  In fact, with President Obama’s reelection, and his evidenced commitment to the communications industry, it is very likely that the U.S. will continue on this trend of promoting broadband investment.  Puerto Rico will likely be part of this equation, but to a lesser degree than the states.

Major Growth in Broadband Adoption and Deployment Investment

Presently, communications companies cite lack of interest in broadband and adoption on the island as a major blow to the business case for investing in deployment.  Eighty-six percent of Puerto Rican households have access to basic, fixed broadband (768 Kbps), but broadband adoption rates in the territory are severely anemic compared to the 95 percent of mainland U.S. households that have access to the service.  Of the Puerto Rican households that have access to broadband, only 31 percent actually subscribe, compared with 68 percent of mainland U.S. households.

Puerto Ricans need both access to broadband and education about the benefits of the technology to spur adoption rates.  This means more money for programs to teach the citizenry of the benefits of broadband.  Puerto Rican statehood would mean that there would likely be a government and private infusion of information and training to increase Puerto Rico’s adoption numbers, which would in turn likely spur investment in deployment.

Opportunities for STEM Education and a Boost in Telehealth Capabilities

The need for access to online education and telehealth is growing daily.  Unfortunately, Puerto Ricans would not be able to access these modern miracles at current broadband levels.

According to a survey Connect Puerto Rico conducted in 2012, of the citizens who have adopted broadband, 45 percent stated that they adopted the service because they needed it for school.  Furthermore, when asked what their broadband activities consisted of, 46 percent of respondents stated that their activities were health related, and 59 percent responded that they were education related.  However, when participants were asked where they could access the Internet outside their homes, only seven percent of the responders said in school and five percent said in a library.  Across Puerto Rico’s public schools that do have access, broadband connectivity is insufficient to meet the challenges of this new millennium – in 2011, the maximum connection speed contracted by the island’s public K-12 system was only 1.5 Mbps.

Connection speeds aren’t much better inside the home. Of those who do have access, only 57 percent of Puerto Rican households have broadband available at 3 Mbps or faster, and only 32 percent have access of 10 Mbps or faster.  Puerto Rico’s extensive bandwidth constraints are preventing healthcare providers and consumers from fully leveraging the benefits of online health applications and services.  With statehood, Puerto Rico and its lag compared to the other 50 states would have to take top priority.  Congress and the White House would have to move quickly to get the island up to par with the rest of the nation.

An Island Connected

Although Puerto Rican statehood may never occur, the technological benefits that it could create would be considerable.  If Puerto Rico garnered statehood status it would be equally in line with the other 50 states for the multitude of government programs that are already in place. The question of Puerto Rico’s statehood is an extensive political question that can take much discussion with various interest holders staking the claim to know what is best for the island’s citizenry.  However, what is clear is that broadband education and deployment in Puerto Rico and the other U.S. territories need much more attention if the U.S. is to give these citizens the same regard that it gives those living in the present 50 states.

Puerto Rico should not have to wait for Congressional and White House action on its statehood in order to compete and thrive in the 21st century.

    • Latoya LivingstonLatoya Livingston is a Washington-D.C.-based attorney with years of legal experience working in the private and public sector. Currently, Attorney Livingston serves as a Senior Attorney and the Earle K. Moore Fellow at MMTC.


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