Agencies Look to Emergency Communications

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The Federal Communications Commission and other bodies are trying to plan for future disasters to avoid communications failures that caused such chaos after Hurricane Katrina.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Today the Federal Communications Commission appointed a panel to examine Katrina's impact on the telecommunications infrastructure of the region. The storm knocked out service for millions of telephones and drove dozens of TV and radio stations off the air. Regulators and industry executives want to make these networks tougher, and some possible solutions are emerging. NPR's Larry Abramson reports.

LARRY ABRAMSON reporting:

The FCC traveled to a telecom emergency operations center in Atlanta to hear how engineers are still struggling to restore phone service and how broadcasters risked their lives to stay on the air during Katrina. Despite these heroic efforts, FCC Commissioner Michael Copps said the storm exposed many weaknesses.

Commissioner MICHAEL COPPS (FCC): Last year the 9-11 Commission report described a state of communications unreadiness that seriously hindered our country's ability to respond to that attack. And Hurricane Katrina has shown us that we still have far to go.

ABRAMSON: An official with BellSouth told the FCC that well before Katrina, his company had moved backup generators to the second floor of its facilities in New Orleans to guard against a flood, but that just wasn't enough for this storm. Katrina knocked out a thousand cell phone sites across the region. Some stopped functioning when the power went out. Cell phone providers are currently not required to provide a certain amount of backup power. Regulators could mandate stronger cell sites, but that's not likely. Jeffrey Nelson of Verizon Wireless says cell phone providers would resist a government mandate to make their systems more resilient.

Mr. JEFFREY NELSON (Verizon Wireless): We have every incentive in the world to beat our competitors day in, day out. That's in your daily life, and that's certainly at a time of massive destruction, as we've seen in the Gulf Coast.

ABRAMSON: Regardless of what land-line and cell companies do to strengthen their networks, emergency responders now know they need alternatives. Clearly the biggest star to emerge from this disaster is the satellite phone.

Mr. JAY MONROE (CEO, GlobalStar): We probably sold an extra 5 or 10,000 total units as a result of this situation.

ABRAMSON: Jay Monroe is CEO of GlobalStar, which saw network traffic skyrocket after the storm. His company has come up with pricing that makes sat phones affordable for emergency officials, who may only use their phones during disasters. He says he saw a rush of interest even as Katrina approached.

Mr. MONROE: We did receive a lot of calls from people that probably had not really made a buy decision yet and then did.

ABRAMSON: Satellite phones are still likely to be too impractical for average citizens. For them, Katrina has shined a light on other options. Wireless Internet service providers, or WISPs, have rolled out online access points in over 400 Gulf-area communities, and that allows residents to make Internet-based phone calls. These systems can run on a car battery. They don't even require a computer. And Michael Anderson, who represents a WISP coalition called PART-15.org, says they can be put in place quickly.

Mr. MICHAEL ANDERSON (PART-15.org): One of the reasons we can respond and have networks established within 24 to 48 hours upon arrival is the fact that we don't need prior coordination or approval from the FCC to deploy the wireless equipment we use.

ABRAMSON: Regulators want to encourage the rollout of new technologies, but they still depend on private industry to take the lead in preparing for the worst. Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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