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FCC Describes Hurricane Response Efforts

Kenneth Moran, director of the FCC Office of Homeland Security and FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, testified at the Senate Commerce Committee hearing and the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications, respectively, on Hurricane Katrina and communications interoperability. In their testimony, they outlined efforts the FCC was making to restore communications services in areas affected by the hurricane.

The written statement of Kenneth Moran at the Senate Commerce Committee Hearing includes an appendix listing the FCC's hurricane relief efforts. Many of the wireless actions included issuing STAs (special temporary authority) allowing companies and public safety organizations from other parts of the country to use their radios for hurricane relief work. Verizon, SkyTel, PetroCom, Mississippi Power Company and others were allowed to use various microwave bands to restore communications links. The SkyTel STA was for operation in the 3.65 GHz band to provide temporary wireless Internet communications to various relief groups, government agencies and businesses in and around Biloxi, New Orleans and Mobile.

Broadcast actions include grants of STA to remain silent to numerous radio stations, and grants for emergency LPFM stations on 95.3 MHz, 94.9 MHz, 95.3 MHz and 99.5 MHz in and around the Astrodome. Operation of these stations was suspended Sept. 8. LPTV stations WTNO-LP, W30ID and W36CU were granted an STA to remain silent. STA for TV silent authority was issued to WHNO-TV, WDSU-TV, WDSU-DT, WVUE, WVUE-DT, WWL-DT and WUPL(TV). Loral Skynet was given authority to use a satellite dish transportable on a Humvee to provide free VoIP and Internet access at the site of relief efforts.

The list of FCC efforts give an idea of the scope of the response to the disaster, listing STA grants for many stations to promote live and on-air coverage of fund raising efforts around the country. Many satellite operators were given permission to use satellite uplinks to restore communications. Some of the STAs required coordination with NTIA, including an STA for Time Dominion to use high-power ultra-wide band equipment for through-the-wall imaging system operations and two STAs for Intel to use 3 GHz frequencies to provide wireless services to a relief center at Kelly Air Force Base in Texas.

While Hurricane Rita did not have the same impact on communications as Hurricane Katrina, Moran said approximately 40 cell sites are not operational in Lake Charles, La. and more than 100 cell sites are not operational in Beaumont, Texas. As of last week when the statement was issued, nearly 100 radio and television stations remained off the air due to the hurricanes and many that were operational depended upon back-up energy supplies.

The written statement of FCC Chairman Kevin Martin to the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet of House Committee on Energy and Commerce, in addition to the same Appendix A listing FCC actions, includes graphs showing the percentage of TV and radio stations on the air starting at 100 percent on August 28 and continuing through both hurricanes until September 27. One graph shows the number of telephone customers in the Gulf Coast area without service. It peaked Aug. 31 -- Sept. 2 at just under 3,000,000 and remained above 1,000,000 until Sept. 7 (weekend data estimated).

What can be done to restore communications after a disaster? Chairman Martin outlined some options. "If we learned anything from Hurricane Katrina, it is that we cannot rely solely on terrestrial communications. When radio towers are knocked down, satellite communications are, in some instances, the most effective means of communicating. At the same time, we should use new technologies so that first responders can take advantage of whatever terrestrial network is available. Smart radios would enable first responders to find any available towers or infrastructure on multiple frequencies, and Wi-Fi, spread spectrum and other frequency hopping techniques would enable them to use limited spectrum quickly and efficiently. Additionally, mobile antennas--capable of using both satellite and terrestrial technology--should be used to establish communications as quickly as possible. This infrastructure could include inflatable antennas, cell towers on wheels, high-altitude balloons, or other mobile facilities. A system taking advantage of such measures would be capable of truly rapid deployment."

Chairman Martin did not list any improvements for broadcast stations, but his comments on network reliability could apply to broadcasters as well. "We should ensure that all communications providers develop and adhere to best practices to ensure reliability in the event of a disaster and quick restoration of service and facilities in the event service is disrupted. These best practices should address, among other things, maintaining service during extended commercial power outages through the use of back-up generators and equipment. We also should take full advantage of IP-based technologies to enhance the resiliency of traditional communications networks. IP technology provides the dynamic capability to change and reroute telecommunications traffic within the network. In the event of systems failure within the traditional network, greater use of these technologies will enable service providers to restore service more quickly and to provide the flexibility to initiate service at new locations chosen by consumers."

While Moran mentioned the 2.6 MHz of spectrum in the 700 MHz TV band designated for public safety interoperability use, he noted that the Commission has designated a total of 97 MHz of spectrum exclusively for public safety use, including 50 MHz at 4.9 GHz and 9.5 MHz in the 800 MHz band. Martin did not specifically mention the 700 MHz spectrum in his statement, but he emphasized the need for sufficient spectrum and an interoperable system, stating, "it must allow different organizations from different jurisdictions to communicate with each other immediately, through both voice and data transmissions. This requires that there be sufficient spectrum devoted to these purposes. Equally importantly, it requires that first responders have equipment capable of operating on multiple frequencies in multiple formats, so that different systems can connect with each other. So-called 'smart radios' are ideally suited to this purpose, as they can intelligently jump to different frequencies and formats as needed to establish communications. Properly implemented, a system with adequate spectrum and smart radios would help to ensure that both data and voice are transmitted between agencies instantly, replacing multiple, lengthy phone calls to multiple agencies."

The written statement of FCC chairman Kevin Martin along with the written statement of Kenneth Moran provide an excellent overview of impact of these hurricanes on communications systems in the Gulf. For a complete listing of all FCC actions related to the hurricanes, visit the FCC's Hurricane Rita Emergency Information and Hurricane Katrina Emergency Information Web pages.