• United States



by Paul Kerstein

FCC: Hurricane Shows Need for Redundant Telecom

Sep 22, 20054 mins
CSO and CISOData and Information Security

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

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin called for the U.S. government to incorporatethe Internet into an emergency warning system that traditionally hasbeen carried over television and radio stations, and he saidtelecommunications 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 wasdesigned by the military for its robust network redundancyfunctionalities, and other advantages in technology so that officialscan reach large numbers of people simultaneously through differentcommunications media,” Martin told the U.S. Senate Commerce, Scienceand Transportation Committee.

Emergency responders need more radio spectrum to communicate with eachother, Martin added, and they need new technologies like so-called”smart” radios that can jump to different frequencies when sometelecommunications providers aren’t functioning, as happened whenHurricane Katrina hit the New Orleans area in late August.

BellSouth Corp., the major provider of landline phone service inLouisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, lost connections on close to 2.5million telephone lines following Katrina, said Bill Smith, thecompany’s chief technology officer. As of Tuesday morning, about200,000 lines continued to be disconnected, he said.

About 20 million telephone calls did not go through the day afterKatrina struck, Martin said. The hurricane knocked out 38 emergency 911response centers, and three remained down as of Wednesday, he said.About 1,600 wireless telephone transmission sites were taken out by thehurricane, and 600 remain down, although all wireless switching centersin 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 radiostations remain off the air, while several others have returned to theair.

Senators questioned why emergency 911 response centers didn’t reroutecalls to other centers as the hurricane approached. The technologyexists, Martin said, but many emergency response centers did not have aplan for rerouting calls.

Martin noted that satellite-based Internet and wireless phone providerswere not affected by the hurricane, and Jeffrey Citron, chairman andchief executive officer of VOIP (voice over IP) provider VonageHoldings Corp. said his service was largely unaffected for people whohad access to VOIP phones and electricity, because the Internet stayedup in many places. Pressed by senators about the lessons of satellitestaying up, Martin said the U.S. needs to incorporate satellite intoemergency communications.

Martin told senators he will establish an independent commission madeup of public safety and communications industry people to come up withways to improve communications after a disaster. One of the panel’smissions will be improving communications for emergency responders.

Martin’s call for more radio frequency spectrum for emergencyresponders came after Senators John McCain, an Arizona Republican, andConrad Burns, a Montana Republican, called for Congress to move forwardon legislation that would free up radio spectrum by requiringtelevision stations to switch from analog to digital broadcasts. A moveto digital television (DTV) would free up spectrum in the upper 700MHzradio frequency band for commercial and public safety uses. The FCC hassaid it would give 24MHz of that spectrum to public safety users andauction off 60MHz for commercial uses.

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

McCain, sponsor of a bill that would set a Jan. 1, 2009, firm deadlinefor a DTV transition, complained that Congress been slow to recognizethe need for a hard date. The 9-11 Commission established to makerecommendations following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorists attacks on theU.S. called for additional emergency responder spectrum, he noted.

In the last session of Congress, McCain tried multiple times to passlegislation to free up spectrum for emergency responders, and hereintroduced his SAVE LIVES Act legislation this year. “Still, Congresshas yet to act this year, despite its stated intention to do so,” hesaid. “We’re 10 months into this … session, and it’s almost been amonth since Hurricane Katrina, and the Senate has yet to take up anylegislation providing first responders their spectrum.”

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

By Grant Gross – IDG News Service (Washington Bureau)