UPDATED: With Hurricane Rita promising a reprise of the communications collapse
during Hurricane Katrina earlier this month, Federal Communications Commission
(FCC) Chairman Kevin Martin told lawmakers Thursday the Internet must become
a vital part of the nation’s emergency response system.
According to the FCC, Katrina knocked down more than 3 million customer
telephone lines in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. More than 20 million
telephone calls did not go through the day after Katrina. Local wireless
networks fared no better with more than 1,000 cell sites out of service.
Even if calls had been able to get through, first responders were hamstrung
by the fact that thirty-eight 911 call centers went down.
“We should take full advantage of IP-based technologies to enhance the
resiliency of a traditional communications network,” Martin told a Senate
panel. “IP technology provides the dynamic capability to change and reroute
telecommunications traffic within the traditional network.”
Martin added that when traditional systems fail, IP-based technologies will
enable service providers to more quickly restore service and provide the
flexibility to initiate service at new locations.
“If we learned anything from Hurricane Katrina, it is that we cannot rely
solely on terrestrial communications,” Martin said. “We should use new
technologies so that first responders can take advantage of whatever
terrestrial network is available.”
Martin said smart radios would allow first responders to find any available
towers or infrastructure on multiple frequencies. He added that Wi-Fi,
spread spectrum and other frequency-hopping techniques would allow emergency
workers to use limited spectrum quickly and efficiently.
Most of all, Martin urged, any emergency alert system should “incorporate
the Internet, which was designed by the military for its robust network
Martin also used his testimony to again support the FCC’s position that all
Voice over IP (VoIP) providers ensure that e911 services are fully
incorporated into Internet telephony.
In May, the FCC ruled that all Internet telephony companies that
interconnect with the public switched telephone network (PSTN) must route
VoIP-orginated E911 calls directly to emergency dispatchers along with the
location of the caller. The FCC set a November deadline for VoIP providers
to comply with the order.
“The obligation to provide access to emergency operators should not be
optional for any telephone service provider — regardless of whether that
provider is wireless, wireline, cable or VoIP,” Martin said.
Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) told Martin
Congress will provide the FCC with all the authority it needs to impose e911
obligations on VoIP carriers.
Sen. John Sununu (R-NH), though, questioned
the FCC’s additional mandate that Internet telephone companies notify
subscribers that their E911 service is different from traditional emergency
calling services with customer affirmative responses due by Sept. 28.
Under the FCC order, VoIP providers are required to cut off phone service to
those customers who do not acknowledge the warning.
Sununu pointed out that VoIP service was one of the few telecom systems
functioning during Hurricane Katrina, a point underscored by Vonage Chairman
and CEO Jeffrey Citron.
“Much like Sept. 11, phone networks failed. Wireless networks failed.
Satellite phones stopped working,” Citron told lawmakers. “But the Internet
was still alive in some places and so was Internet phone service.”
Citron said Vonage was able to maintain service to New Orleans because of
the redundant nature of the Internet.
“The flexibility that allows our service to work over any high-speed
Internet connection anywhere is the reason our subscribers are able to
communicate in the midst of the Katrina disaster,” he said.
Citron admitted some Vonage customers were unable to use their VoIP service.
“This is primarily because those users lacked power and because our partner
serving New Orleans was unable to send calls from the telephone network to
Vonage’s Internet gateways,” Citron testified.
Stevens also said he expects his committee to approve in October a hard date
for television broadcasters to vacate their analog spectrum to clear space
for emergency responder wireless communications.