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.

FCC Chairman Pai Urges Apple To Activate FM Chips To Promote Public Safety

In recent years, I have repeatedly called on the wireless industry to activate the FM chips that are already installed in almost all smartphones sold in the United States. And I’ve specifically pointed out the public safety benefits of doing so. In fact, in my first public speech after I became Chairman, I observed that ‘[y]ou could make a case for activating chips on public safety grounds alone.’ When wireless networks go down during a natural disaster, smartphones with activated FM chips can allow Americans to get vital access to life-saving information. I applaud those companies that have done the right thing by activating the FM chips in their phones. Apple is the one major phone manufacturer that has resisted doing so. But I hope the company will reconsider its position, given the devastation wrought by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria.

That’s why I am asking Apple to activate the FM chips that are in its iPhones. It is time for Apple to step up to the plate and put the safety of the American people first. As the Sun Sentinel of South Florida put it, ‘Do the right thing, Mr. Cook. Flip the switch. Lives depend on it.’

Facebook is sending its connectivity team to help Puerto Rico get back online

Mark Zuckerberg pledged $1.5 million in aid to organizations assisting in Puerto Rico’s recovery from Hurricane Maria, together with direct assistance from Facebook’s connectivity team to help the country get back online.

The hurricane left 80 percent of the island without power, and citizens have faced intense shortages of food, fuel, and drinking water in the seven days since landfall. The $1.5 million donation is split between the World Food Programme, an anti-hunger organization, and NetHope, a consortium of non-profits that works to improve connectivity in undeveloped or disaster-stricken areas. Zuckerberg asked concerned followers to donate to Save The Children, which is working to distribute aid on the island. Zuckerberg emphasized the importance of communications in the recovery effort. “With 90% of cell towers on the island out of service, people can't get in touch with their loved ones, and it's harder for rescue workers to coordinate relief efforts,” Zuckerberg wrote. “We're sending the Facebook connectivity team to deliver emergency telecommunications assistance to get the systems up and running.” The company also plans to use donated Facebook ad space to share critical information with Puerto Rican users, although the ads will be of little use until power and connectivity is restored.

Notice of Funding Opportunity State and Local Implementation Grant Program (SLIGP) 2.0

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration issues this Notice of Funding Opportunity to describe the requirements under which NTIA will award grants for the State and Local Implementation Grant Program 2.0 (SLIGP 2.0), authorized by section 6302 of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 (Act), to assist state, local and tribal governments with planning activities for the nationwide interoperable public safety broadband network.

Applications will be accepted from September 27, 2017 until December 28, 2017 at 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time; or from September 27, 2017 until 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time on the 91st calendar day from the date that the Governor of an applicant State receives notice from FirstNet of its final State Plan, whichever is later. Applicants are encouraged to submit SLIGP 2.0 applications as soon as possible in the application window once their respective Governor has made a decision regarding the FirstNet State Plan for deployment of the Radio Access Network. The earlier submission of applications will assist NTIA with workflow challenges during the abbreviated application review time period.

FCC Commissioner Rosenworcel criticizes agency's hurricane response

Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel says her agency needs to do more to help restore phone service in areas affected by the recent string of devastating hurricanes. "After Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy @FCC held hearings to address network recovery. Why won’t agency do it for Harvey, Irma & Maria?” she tweeted. “These are people struggling to make phone calls in the United States. @FCC must study networks in disaster. Stat.”

Critics say the agency is responding slower than to previous hurricanes and are laying the blame on FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. In 2012, the FCC announced that it would hold agency hearings within weeks of Superstorm Sandy, which battered the Northeast. “Frankly, I think Pai is worried … that hearings will point to problems the FCC needs to solve through regulation,” said Harold Feld, senior vice president at Public Knowledge.

FCC to Examine 911 Capabilities of Enterprise Communications Systems

The Federal Communications Commission began an examination of the 911 calling capabilities of enterprise communications systems, which serve many office buildings, educational campuses, and hotels. Noting reports that some of these systems may not support direct 911 dialing, route 911 calls to the nearest 911 call center, or transmit accurate information on the caller’s location or call-back number, the Commission is seeking to identify the reasons why the 911 capabilities of these systems appear to be lagging. The FCC seeks input on topics including the current state of the enterprise communications systems marketplace; the public’s expectations when calling 911 from these systems; the capabilities, limitations, and costs of provisioning 911 on these systems; and related developments, such as the extent of state legislation and industry standards in this area. The FCC is also seeking comment on potential ways to ensure that 911 calling from these systems keeps pace with technological developments and public expectations, including through voluntary best practices or through the development of voluntary technical or operational standards. In addition, the FCC asks whether it should continue to refrain from adopting 911 rules for enterprise communications systems or whether updating or streamlining existing rules to better support 911 capabilities for these systems is warranted. (FCC 17-125)

Puerto Ricans hunt for precious Wi-Fi and cell signals

Margarita Aponte and her relatives cleared the road in front of her house with two oxen Sept 24, then drove an hour from her devastated hometown in central Puerto Rico to the old telegraph building in the capital of San Juan. There, thousands of Puerto Ricans gathered for a chance at a resource nearly as precious as power and water in the wake of Hurricane Maria — communication. “It’s ringing, it’s ringing, it’s ringing!”

Aponte, a janitor, screamed as her phone connected to free Wi-Fi and her Facetime call went through to the mainland. Her eyes filled with tears as she talked with nephews, uncles, brothers and sisters in Florida and Massachusetts for the first time since Maria destroyed nearly every cellphone and fiber optic connection on this US territory of 3.4 million people. The low murmur at one of two free Wi-Fi hotspots is occasionally interrupted by the cheering of someone getting through the largely jammed network. Most spend hours frowning at their phones, unable to connect. “There’s no communication. We’re in God’s hands,” Yesenia Gomez, a kitchen worker, said as she left a message for her mother in the neighboring Dominican Republic. Dozens of other Puerto Ricans opted to pull over to the side of the road along various highways where cellphone signals were strongest.

Ham Radio Hobbyists Are Connecting the Caribbean After Hurricane Maria

Most Puerto Ricans are just trying to reach family members. Few have access to Wi-Fi hotspots or electrical outlets. Sustained winds of 155 mph obliterated 95 percent of Puerto Rico's wireless cell sites, leaving much of the country a deadzone. In the past week, Puerto Rico's government has received more than 110,000 outside calls, many, no doubt, from panicked relatives. Remote places like Arecibo, near the western part of Puerto Rico, were particularly hard-hit. Here, the only reliable mode of communication is radio. And amid the silence, a determined network of radio hobbyists, affectionately called "hams," is helping communities make contact.

Ham radio is an older technology, archaic by some modern standards, but highly customizable. Hobbyists must pass a test to obtain a license, so the term "amateur" is something of a misnomer. As of 2015, there were 726,275 hams in the US, and six million worldwide. These networks are remarkably resilient in bad weather, with the exception of solar storms.

For Puerto Ricans Off the Island, a Struggle to Make Contact After Maria

For the more than five million Puerto Ricans living on the United States mainland, it was bad enough to watch news reports on Sept 19 of Hurricane Maria ripping through an island where relatives and friends lived. What made it worse was not knowing how their loved ones had fared.

With the entire power grid knocked out and with more than 95 percent of wireless cell sites out of service, communication was all but impossible on Sept 21, and an already emotional day became even harder for the Puerto Rican diaspora. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai said that the hurricane’s impact on the island’s communications infrastructure had been “catastrophic,” and that the commission was trying to help. Some services, like texting and a few internet messaging apps, were reported to be working, but not consistently.

How the Internet Kept Humming During 2 Hurricanes

For all their seeming immateriality, the internet and the cloud rely on a vast industrial infrastructure consisting of data centers linked through a sprawling network of fiber optics. The facilities are stacked with servers — boxlike computers that crunch the data for everything from hospitals, law enforcement agencies and banks to news websites, email and weather reports — that cannot be without electricity and cooling for even a fraction of a second. Yet even as millions of people lost power across Florida, and thousands of homes and businesses were flooded out in Miami and Texas, the heavy digital machinery at the heart of the internet and the cloud held firm. Though the storm disabled some cellphone towers and local connections, Jeff Eassey, a manager for Digital Realty who hunkered down in the Miami building, said the center never stopped processing and transmitting data. It lost utility power around 8:30 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 10, but supplied its own electricity with generators.

Procedures for FCC Review of State Opt-Out Requests from FirstNet

On June 22, 2017, the Federal Communications Commission adopted a Report and Order in this docket establishing Commission procedures for administering the state opt-out process as provided under the Public Safety Spectrum Act, as well as delineating the two-prong statutory standard by which the Commission will evaluate state alternative plans. The Report and Order resolved all issues, except the standard under which the FCC would review compliance with “Prong 2” of the statutory test. The Report and Order directed the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau (Bureau) to issue a Public Notice establishing an expedited comment period for public comment on ex parte filings submitted by the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) on this standard. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said, "With today’s Order, we take another step towards the creation of a nationwide interoperable public safety broadband network. Specifically, we finalize the technical criteria the Commission will use to evaluate plans from those states that elect to optout of the network that will be deployed by the First Responder Network Authority."