FCC Chairman Proposes Fixes To Support Disaster Relief

In particular, the country needs to be able to deploy a reliable mobile communications system--preferably based on the latest technologies--in the event of a disaster.
With Hurricane Rita bearing down on the Gulf Coast, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin told a Senate Committee that the nation needs a truly mobile communications infrastructure that will draw on the latest technologies in disaster situations.

“If we learned anything from Hurricane Katrina, it is that we cannot rely solely on terrestrial communications,” Martin told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Thursday. “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.”

Martin noted that some 2.5 million landlines were knocked out by Katrina. Satellite links continued to function in the wake of the hurricane, although many handsets were rendered useless when their batteries failed.

The FCC chairman also sees a role for the Internet to play in disaster relief, noting that IP technologies can help shore up failing landline and other traditional networks. “IP technology provides the dynamic capability to change and reroute telecommunications traffic within the network,” he said.

In proposing three steps for the future, Martin said it was important for all service providers to follow emergency 911 regulations. He said all providers must comply with 911 rules including wireless, wireline, cable and VoIP providers. VoIP providers are facing a Nov. 28 deadline to comply with an FCC mandate and many service providers are struggling to meet the deadline.

Ironically, it may have been VoIP provider Vonage that provided some crucial communications links in the hours after Hurricane Katrina knocked out traditional communications networks. Even satellite phones had failed when their batteries ran out of power. Jeffrey Citron, Vonage chairman and CEO, told the federal lawmakers that his firm’s Internet phone service continued to work in locations that had electricity and broadband links.

Martin also called for the establishment of an all-encompassing alert system capable of alerting national, state and local officials of an impending disaster. He said: “It should incorporate the Internet, which was designed by the military for its robust network redundancy functionalities.”

Finally, Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) should be redundant, Martin suggested, as he called for the FCC to take the lead in promoting redundancy among local jurisdictions.

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