Emergency Communications

The Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Huricane Katrina and other man-made and natural disasters often reveal flaws in emergency communications systems. Here we attempt to chart the effects of disasters on our telecommunications and media communications systems -- and efforts by policymakers to stregthen these systems.

FirstNet's fight for customers will continue long past opt-in deadline

FirstNet and AT&T continue to garner commitments from states and territories looking to use the nation’s first dedicated network for emergency workers. Even if they get every region they’re targeting, though, they’ll have to continue to fight to win over local municipalities. And that won’t be an easy task.

Earlier in 2017, the U.S. Department of Commerce granted AT&T the right to build the nation’s first network dedicated to first responders. States have a legal right to opt out of FirstNet’s service, but if they choose another service provider, the network must be interoperable with FirstNet’s offering. Securing the contract was viewed as a major win for AT&T, which will get access to FirstNet’s 20 MHz of 700 MHz low-band spectrum and $6.5 billion for designing and operating the nationwide network for federal, state and local authorities, with the right to sell excess capacity on the system. AT&T will spend roughly $40 billion over the life of the 25-year contract to deploy and maintain the network, the Department of Commerce said, integrating its network assets with FirstNet.

Bringing the internet back to Puerto Rico

Few people have heard of NetHope, but lots of people have benefited from its work. The group acts as the tech arm for a consortium of 53 major global charities, working with tech giants to restore communications in the wake of natural disasters. These days, of course, NetHope is focused on Puerto Rico and other places devastated by recent hurricanes. "You can't really get food, water, shelter where it needs to go if you can't communicate, certainly not at scale," NetHope global programs head Frank Schott said.

The group has dozens of people on the ground, including volunteers from some of the biggest companies in tech. The extensive devastation of the electric grid is making things especially challenging, though the U.S. government and big companies are pitching in on efforts to restore cell service and internet connectivity.

Lawmakers question FirstNet's funding

“There are a great number of unknowns and challenges going forward about how the network will develop and whether it will be actually sustainable over time,” Mark Goldstein, a director at the Government Accountability Office, told the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications about the FirstNet system.

The First Responder Network Authority, known as FirstNet, is a planned broadband system intended to be used by first responders to help them communicate during emergencies such as natural disasters or terror attacks. Lawmakers pressed witnesses on FirstNet's development.

FirstNet: Efforts to Establish the Public-Safety Broadband Network

FirstNet is charged with establishing a nationwide public-safety broadband network that is reliable, secure, and interoperable. To inform this work, FirstNet is consulting with a variety of stakeholders. In March 2017, FirstNet awarded a 25-year contract to AT&T to build, operate, and maintain the network. FirstNet's oversight of AT&T's performance is important given the scope of the network and the duration of the contract. This testimony provides information on (1) FirstNet's efforts to establish the network; (2) stakeholder views on network reliability, security, and interoperability challenges FirstNet faces and its efforts to address them; and (3) FirstNet's plans to oversee its network contractor. This statement is based on GAO's June 2017 report.

For this report, GAO reviewed FirstNet documentation, key contract oversight practices identified in federal regulations and other sources, tribal communication practices identified by federal agencies, and assessed FirstNet's efforts and plans against these practices. GAO also interviewed FirstNet officials and a nongeneralizable selection of public safety, tribal, and other stakeholders selected to obtain a variety of viewpoints. In June 2017, GAO recommended that FirstNet fully explore tribal stakeholders' concerns and assess its long-term staffing needs. FirstNet agreed with GAO's recommendations and described actions to address them.

In Puerto Rico, No Power Means No Telecommunications

Nearly three weeks after Hurricane Maria tore through the Caribbean, Puerto Rico is still mostly an island deleted from the present and pushed back a century or so—with little clean water, little electric power, and almost no telecommunications. For telecom, the biggest problem is the lack of power, because most of the island’s transmission lines were knocked out.

“We have to reconstruct the power grid as if we were dropping into the middle of the desert and starting from scratch,” says Luis Romero, vice president of the Puerto Rico Telecommunications Alliance. “Then on top of that would go the telecommunications services.” Puerto Rico’s telecom carriers, who are fiercely competitive, have banded together “to provide communication to people in despair,” Romero says. “But basically we’re on our own here.” And no one knows what’ll happen when the diesel that’s keeping all those generators humming runs out.

FCC Grants Experimental License for Project Loon to Operate in Puerto Rico

The Federal Communications Commission has granted an experimental license for Project Loon, led by Google's parent company Alphabet, to help provide emergency cellular service in Puerto Rico.

“More than two weeks after Hurricane Maria struck, millions of Puerto Ricans are still without access to much-needed communications services,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. “That’s why we need to take innovative approaches to help restore connectivity on the island. Project Loon is one such approach. It could help provide the people of Puerto Rico with access to cellular service to connect with loved ones and access life-saving information. I’m glad the FCC was able to grant this experimental license with dispatch and I urge wireless carriers to cooperate with Project Loon to maximize this effort’s chances of success.” Project Loon is a network of balloons that provides connectivity to users on the ground. Now that the experimental license has been approved, it will attempt to initiate service in Puerto Rico. Project Loon obtained consent agreements to use land mobile radio (LMR) radio spectrum in the 900 MHz band from existing carriers operating within Puerto Rico.

FCC Chairman Pai Announces Hurricane Recovery Task Force

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai announced the formation of an FCC Hurricane Recovery Task Force. This internal task force will continue the Commission’s work in support of the restoration of communications services in areas affected by this season’s hurricanes, with an emphasis on addressing the challenges facing Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.

“As we shift from short-term incident management to a longer-term recovery phase, it makes sense to adjust the structure of the FCC’s response. In the weeks and months to come, the Commission will be confronting a wide range of storm-related issues that fall within the jurisdiction of numerous bureaus and offices,” said Chairman Pai. “It is critical that we adopt a coordinated and comprehensive approach to support the rebuilding of communications infrastructure and restoration of communications services. The Hurricane Recovery Task Force will allow us to do just that.” The task force will be chaired by Michael Carowitz, Special Counsel to Chairman Pai, and comprised of representatives from bureaus and offices throughout the agency.

Retransmission Blackouts During Disasters Hurt All

[Commentary] To allow stations in the middle of a retransmission fight when hurricanes or other disasters loom as Lilly Broadcasting and Hearst did is not too smart. In addition to possibly depriving viewers of access to vital information, it gives retransmission foes more ammunition in their fight against this valuable second revenue stream.

A Hurricane Maria 'Tech Brigade' Is Helping Connect the Puerto Rican Diaspora

The members of a group of over 200 coders, computer scientists, and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs calling themselves the Maria Tech Brigade believe that relief efforts after Hurricane Maria need to be approached from a different perspective. Namely, by developing technologies for people connected to Puerto Rico. The Brigade does eventually want to extend these technologies to people in Puerto Rico. For instance, member Jesús Luzon is working on developing low-cost solar panels for people without power. But initiatives like these are in their beginning stages, and the Brigade's most notable success so far might be its community.

Firsthand Lessons from First Responders

September 2017 will long be remembered for devastating storms. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria each caused billions of dollars in damage, claimed the lives of many Americans, and disrupted millions more. They also reminded us how important communications networks can be during emergencies—and that the Federal Communications Commission has a role to play in helping keep people safe.

I recently had the chance to see these factors at play firsthand. I traveled to South Florida with Commissioner Mignon Clyburn to survey the impact of Hurricane Irma. I then flew directly to Indiana, where I resumed my ongoing tour of U.S. communities impacted by the digital divide...Next Generation 911 offers great potential for the future of public safety. But too many jurisdictions are struggling with how to transition from their legacy systems to NG911. There are significant costs involved, not to mention other issues, like the need for enhanced training of 911 call takers and ensuring that NG911 deployment is standards-based. All of us need to think creatively about how to address these issues going forward.