FCC Seeks New Bureau For Disaster Management

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin proposed the creation of a new internal bureau inside the agency to coordinate the planning and response actions during national disasters, as part of the agency’s response to communications failures in the face of Hurricane Katrina.
FCC Chairman Kevin Martin on Thursday proposed the creation of a new internal bureau inside the agency to coordinate the planning and response actions for communications services during national disasters, as part of the agency’s response to communications failures in the face of Hurricane Katrina.

Speaking at the end of the commission’s monthly open meeting -- which was broadcast on the Web from the Atlanta-based emergency-operations center of telecom provider BellSouth -- Martin said that in addition to the new bureau, the FCC would also provide approximately $200 million in financial assistance to telecom customers and companies, and also convene an “expert panel” to review what lessons might be learned from the effects of Katrina.

Martin’s comments followed those from a long list of telecommunications and broadcast industry representatives, who mostly detailed what damage Katrina had inflicted on their infrastructures, and how they had responded in their attempts to restore service. According to Ken Moran, the FCC’s director of its office of homeland security, there are still almost 350,000 customers without wireline phone service, and still three 911 centers in Louisiana that are inoperable.

While government leaders and other observers have criticized the industry for its inability to keep communicatons systems up and running during the storm, the FCC’s Thursday meeting consisted mainly of industry representatives giving presentations about what happened, with little talk about how the industry might better prepare for future disasters.

Some executives, like BellSouth president of network services Fred Odom, said that Katrina was unlike other storms, given the combination of a hurricane with widespread flooding. While BellSouth did what it usually does to prepare for hurricanes, the flooding in the New Orleans area kept the company from being able to bring additional fuel to generators at its switching and network operation centers, Odom said.

“Katrina was really different from any other hurricane,” said Odom, who told a story about BellSouth needing FBI and police protection to move employees in and out of a key operation center in downtown New Orleans during the storm’s aftermath.

While Thursday’s list of presenters included representatives from the wireline, wireless, satellite, radio and television industries, there were no representatives from the IP-based communications industry, even though services like Vonage’s VoIP proved instrumental in helping people communicate during the initial aftermath.

“Now, once again, the VoIP industry has been excluded from the dialogue,” wrote VoIP entreprenuer Jeff Pulver in a blog posting Thursday. “As a result, I fear that the public might miss out on the full story and may never understand the positive role that IP technology could play going forward in times of public catastrophe.”

Perhaps Vonage and other VoIP representatives might be invited to participate in the FCC’s proposed “expert panel,” which Martin said will be charged with making recommendations to the commission about how to improve network readiness, reliability, and communications between first responders. One theme that emerged from Thursday’s hearing was the revelation that many competitors worked together to jointly re-establish services, a trend that FCC commissioner Kathleen Abernathy said “might serve as a template” for future disaster-response efforts.

“From this process, we need to learn what worked, what did not, and what the commission should do now to make our communications networks more robust in the future,” said Martin. “We need to improve our ability to serve the public in the event of another disaster, and we need to provide leadership to the industry to focus attention on what could be improved.”

For FCC commissioner Michael Copps, the actions can’t come too quickly.

“It’s not that the commission hasn’t acted in the past, it hasn’t done enough,” said Copps, who noted that groups like the 9/11 commission noted that the nation still is in a “state of communications unreadiness,” more than four years after the terrorist attacks showed flaws in communications infrastructures.

“Hurricane Katrina showed us we still have far to go,” Copps said. “Now people are talking again about full-scale [communications] planning. This time we dare not fail.”

Editor's Choice
Brandon Taylor, Digital Editorial Program Manager
Jessica Davis, Senior Editor
Cynthia Harvey, Freelance Journalist, InformationWeek
Terry White, Associate Chief Analyst, Omdia
John Abel, Technical Director, Google Cloud
Richard Pallardy, Freelance Writer
Cynthia Harvey, Freelance Journalist, InformationWeek
Pam Baker, Contributing Writer