Colorado Springs, Colo. Finger-pointing followed FEMA into the Katrina disaster area last week, as communications service providers and electric utilities admitted they had no idea how many weeks or months New Orleans and other hard-hit areas of the Gulf Coast might be without service.
Coastal communities in Mississippi and Alabama are expected to restore all power and communications services in the next month or two, although initially few citizens may be around to use them. The flooding of New Orleans and that city's subsequent, chaotic evacuation, however, have created an enduring calamity that may not see electricity and communications brought fully back online until sometime in 2006.
The timetable should surprise no one who's seen footage of the devastation. President Bush said on Aug. 31 that the nation had not suffered a catastrophe of like magnitude since the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906. But that did not stop pundits in print, online and on the airwaves last week from bemoaning the inadequacies of technology on the one hand and bureaucracy on the other.
John Pike, director of security and intelligence Web site GlobalSecurity.org, expects to see study groups and commissions formed that will recommend establishment of coast-to-coast fault-tolerant communications networks. But he said that he doesn't expect a quick response to such recommendations from Congress or the administration, quipping, "All talk and no action is what made this country great."
In a more serious vein, Pike said, "It depends on how many nodes you're talking about. A minimal survivable radio network for emergency crews, the improvement of state emergency-management operation centers these kind of steps are feasible. But when people start talking about a nationwide survivable network, I tell them, 'Welcome to what's called the real world.' No one is going to pay for such a thing."
Technologies are emerging for instantly deployable ad hoc wireless meshes based on 802.11, digital packet radios for emergency backup, and cognitive radios that could provide the civilian equivalent of the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS), said John Powell, a senior consulting engineer with the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council who also serves on the Software Defined Radio (SDR) Forum. But "packet, mesh and cognitive aren't really on the agenda yet for public safety networks," he said.
"Certainly, these emerging technologies can lead to better communications in the future," said Powell, "but no technology will help you when the total physical infrastructure is inadequate. This is our first big disaster where urban response teams have had to bring in all their own communications equipment" because there was almost no emergency-communications capability left in the city.
Mark Cummings, managing partner of enVia Technology Partners and chairman of the SDR Forum commercial working group, said forum members have been polled about any equipment they may have in inventory that could be donated to the relief effort. Even if local police had working licensed-frequency radio, Cummings said, SDR could still play an important role, because "you have people coming in from all over, bringing their own systems in, which may not only be incompatible but may even directly interfere with each other. With reconfigurable radio, you can patch together a system to unify these networks in a way that cannot be done with fixed frequency."
Discussions last week at the Federal Emergency Management Agency also "indicate that ad hoc mesh networks will be used as part of the public-safety solution in New Orleans," said Roland Van der Meer, a senior partner at Com Ventures who has worked with mesh and packet-radio startups. But Netherlands-born Van der Meer, who has witnessed firsthand the design of infrastructure to address flooding, said critics in the media should not assume that even fast deployment of mesh networks could do much more than expedite the emergency response. Meshes are an important adjunct to a backhaul mix of microwave and fiber, he said, but they're not a panacea.
"The simple fact is that it doesn't make economic sense to design systems for 150-mph winds. Major floods and storms are going to take out your core communications system," he said. "If a carrier tried to use a mesh and a system of temporary towers to provide consumer service before the network was ready, a few consumers could swamp the available backbone. And if you offer a nonemergency service before power is generally available, people will have 24 or 36 hours of service on a cellular phone and then not be able to recharge anyway."
Some have speculated that long-term outages of terrestrial cellular networks could renew interest in low-earth-orbit satellite networks like Iridium and Globalstar. But Pike of GlobalSecurity.org does not expect such a renaissance.