WASHINGTON, Oct 24 (Reuters) - Verizon Communications Inc said on Wednesday it will spend $25 million to update its network in Florida's Panhandle, an area hard-hit by service outages after Hurricane Michael.
Verizon, the largest U.S. wireless carrier, said in a statement its network was operational in the area and efforts are underway to "further stabilize and strengthen our wireless network."
The company said it would commit the funds "to build the most technologically advanced wireless network in the area" and plans to add next-generation wireless 5G technology in Panama City, Florida, joining the much larger cities of Los Angeles, Houston, Indianapolis and Sacramento, California.
The move follows criticism of the company's performance by elected officials in Florida after the storm damage.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai last week called for wireless carriers to waive October bills for people most severely affected by Hurricane Michael. Later that day, Verizon said it would waive bills for consumer and business customers in two Florida counties for three months. Verizon last week extended the three-month bill waiver to another seven Florida counties.
Michael 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 last week that progress in restoring service was "completely unacceptable" and that the FCC will investigate the outages. He said Tuesday he had met with all four major U.S. wireless carriers last week to understand the "urgency" of the situation.
The FCC said nearly all wireless cell sites are back in service in Florida, but 14 percent remain out in Gulf County and 17 percent in Bay County.
Verizon attributed the delays in restoring coverage in part to significant damage to fiber connections in Florida's Panhandle, the strength of the storm and repeated new cuts to its fiber network by repair crews.
U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, said last week in a letter to Verizon that its competitors had been restoring service much faster.
Verizon said the $25 million network technology upgrade would be largely spent in 2019. (Reporting by David Shepardson in Washington Editing by Matthew Lewis)