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Martin Calls for Flexible Communications

In an appearance before Congress this week, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin praised the "extraordinary" efforts of the communications industry and public safety officials to get communications systems up and running in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, while acknowledging that "there is still much work to do."

As Hurricane Rita threatened the Gulf Coast, and in turn, threatened another communications breakdown, Martin updated the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on the status of, among others, TV and radio broadcasters in the Gulf region. Approximately 100 broadcast stations were knocked off the air, according to the commission; three TV stations have returned to the airwaves while four others remain off air. Approximately 280,000 customers in the region are still without cable service.

Martin reviewed the FCC's response to the communications problems prompted by the hurricane, commenting on a new commission task force to coordinate regulatory relief, cooperation among government entities and assistance to consumers and evacuees.

"The Commission stayed open late every day, seven days a week, for three weeks following the hurricane in order to assist consumers, the industries and other Federal agencies," Martin said.

In addition to taking steps to cut "bureaucratic red tape," the Chairman also made several recommendations that include setting up an independent expert panel of public safety and communications industry representatives to study the impact of Hurricane Katrina on the communications infrastructure in the affected area and provide recommended actions to Congress. He also proposed the creation of a Public Safety/Homeland Security Bureau that would coordinate public safety, national security and disaster management activities within the FCC.

In a nod to several Senators who have chastised broadcasters for holding onto valuable spectrum that could be used by first responders, the Chairman acknowledged the need for an interoperable seamless communications system for public safety officials. Such a system "requires that there be sufficient spectrum devoted to these purposes," Martin said. He called for the use of "smart radios" that can intelligently jump from different frequencies to maintain communications, as well as increased use of IP technologies and satellite phones.

"If we learned anything from Hurricane Katrina, it is that we cannot rely solely on terrestrial communications," Martin said. "When radio towers are knocked down, satellite communications are, in some instances, the most effective means of communicating."

In response to questions from the committee on the analog shut-off, Martin said it would be less cumbersome on "consumers" if not all broadcasters shut off analog at the same time.

Martin made his recommendations in anticipation of similar moves by several legislators, including Sen. John Kerry who reportedly introduced the "Communications Security Act of 2005," that would require the Department of Homeland Security and the FCC to cooperate on the deployment of back-up communications systems based on satellite, wireless and broadcast technologies. In addition, a bipartisan bill, the "Warning, Alerts, and Response Network (WARN) Act," was introduced, including similar recommendations.

Also this week, Committee Chairman Ted Stevens announced his intention to hold a bill mark-up hearing on emergency spectrum and the DTV transition on Oct. 19.