Hurricane Reveals Telecom Faults
Widespread telephone and broadcast outages caused by Hurricane Katrina show that the United States needs more reliable and redundant communications systems, including a better emergency warning system, says the chair of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission.
FCC chair Kevin Martin called for the U.S. government to incorporate the Internet into an emergency warning system that traditionally has been carried over television and radio stations, and he said telecommunications providers need to "take full advantage" of IP-based technologies to enhance their networks.
An emergency warning system "should incorporate the Internet, which was designed by the military for its robust network redundancy functionalities, and other advantages in technology so that officials can reach large numbers of people simultaneously through different communications media," Martin told the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.
Failure to Communicate
Emergency responders need more radio spectrum to communicate with each other, Martin added, and they need new technologies like "smart" radios that can jump to different frequencies when some telecommunications providers aren't functioning, as happened when Hurricane Katrina hit the New Orleans area in late August.
BellSouth, the major provider of landline phone service in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, lost connections on close to 2.5 million telephone lines following Katrina, said Bill Smith, the company's chief technology officer. As of Tuesday morning, about 200,000 lines continued to be disconnected, he said.
About 20 million telephone calls did not go through the day after Katrina struck, Martin said. The hurricane knocked out 38 emergency (911) response centers, and three remained down as of Wednesday, he said. About 1600 wireless telephone transmission sites were taken out by the hurricane, and 600 remain down, although all wireless switching centers in the area are now operational, he said.
Four television stations in the Gulf Coast region remain off the air, while three have returned to broadcasting, Martin said. Thirty-six radio stations remain off the air, while several others have returned.
Senators questioned why the 911 response centers didn't reroute calls to other centers as the hurricane approached. The technology exists, Martin said, but many emergency response centers did not have a plan for rerouting calls.
VoIP Stays Connected
Martin noted that satellite-based Internet and wireless phone providers were not affected by the hurricane; and Jeffrey Citron, chair and chief executive officer of VoIP provider Vonage Holdings, said his service was largely unaffected for people who had access to VoIP phones and electricity, because the Internet stayed up in many places. Pressed by senators about the lessons to be learned, Martin said the U.S. needs to incorporate satellite into emergency communications.
Martin told senators he will establish an independent commission consisting of public-safety and communications-industry people to come up with ways to improve communications after a disaster. One of the panel's missions will be improving communications for emergency responders.
Congress Pushes DTV
Martin's call for more radio frequency spectrum for emergency responders came after Senators John McCain (R-Arizona) and Conrad Burns (R-Montana) called for Congress to move forward on legislation that would free up radio spectrum by requiring television stations to switch from analog to digital broadcasts. A move to digital television would free up spectrum in the upper 700-MHz radio frequency band for commercial and public-safety uses. The FCC has said it would give 24 MHz of that spectrum to public safety and auction off 60 MHz for commercial uses.
Under current law, broadcasters are required to give up their analog spectrum by December 31, 2006--but only in television markets where 85 percent of homes can receive digital signals. With millions of analog-only TV sets in the United States, a transition under the current law could take years.
McCain, sponsor of a bill that would set a firm January 1, 2009, deadline for a DTV transition, complained that Congress has been slow to recognize the need for a hard date. The 9/11 Commission established to make recommendations following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States called for additional emergency responder spectrum, he noted.
In the last session of Congress, McCain tried multiple times to pass legislation to free up spectrum for emergency responders, and this year he reintroduced his SAVE LIVES Act legislation. "Still, Congress has yet to act this year, despite its stated intention to do so," he said. "We're ten months into this...session, and it's almost been a month since Hurricane Katrina, and the Senate has yet to take up any legislation providing first responders their spectrum."
A spokesperson for committee chair Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said he intends to hold a bill mark-up hearing on the emergency spectrum and the digital TV transition by October 19.