FCC head: Hurricane shows need for redundant telecom

Widespread telephone and broadcast outages caused by Hurricane Katrina show that the U.S. needs more reliable and redundant communications systems, including a better emergency warning system, the chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said Thursday.

FCC Chairman 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 (Internet Protocol-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.

Emergency responders need more radio spectrum to communicate with each other, Martin added, and they need new technologies like so-called “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 Corp., 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 1,600 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 the air, Martin said. Thirty-six radio stations remain off the air, while several others have returned to the air.

Senators questioned why emergency 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.

Martin noted that satellite-based Internet and wireless phone providers were not affected by the hurricane, and Jeffrey Citron, chairman and chief executive officer of VOIP (voice over IP) provider Vonage Holdings Corp. 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 of satellite staying up, Martin said the U.S. needs to incorporate satellite into emergency communications.

Martin told senators he will establish an independent commission made up 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.

Martin’s call for more radio frequency spectrum for emergency responders came after Senators John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Conrad Burns, a Montana Republican, 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 (DTV) would free up spectrum in the upper 700MHz radio frequency band for commercial and public safety uses. The FCC has said it would give 24MHz of that spectrum to public safety users and auction off 60MHz for commercial uses.

Under current law, broadcasters are required to give up their analog spectrum by Dec. 31, 2006, with one huge exception: Only in television markets where 85 percent of homes can receive digital signals. With millions of analog-only TV sets in the U.S., a transition under the current law could take years.

McCain, sponsor of a bill that would set a Jan. 1, 2009, firm deadline for a DTV transition, complained that Congress been slow to recognize the need for a hard date. The 9-11 Commission established to make recommendations following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorists attacks on the U.S. 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 he reintroduced his SAVE LIVES Act legislation this year. “Still, Congress has yet to act this year, despite its stated intention to do so,” he said. “We’re 10 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.”

Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, said he intends to hold a bill mark-up hearing on emergency spectrum Oct. 25.