Senator Chuck Schumer is known for pushing populist issues that may have otherwise flown under the radar, and last weekend, he didn’t disappoint. In a letter to the Federal Communications Commission last weekend, Mr. Schumer called on the agency to develop a nationwide plan to improve cell phone service in the aftermath of natural disasters. Earlier today, Mr. Schumer announced the FCC would at least give the New York area a better look by holding field hearings early next year on the issue.
“Field hearings will increase our understanding of the problems encountered during Superstorm Sandy and harvest the best ideas to ensure that mobile phone service doesn’t fail after future storms,” Mr. Schumer said in a statement. “Mobile communication has become an essential part of our lives, and increasing its reliability must be a top priority. I’d like to thank Chairman Genachowski and the FCC for their good work during the storm, and for beginning to tackle this important issue so quickly after.”
According to the FCC, the field hearings will focus on the following issues:
Sandy was an event for which communications providers had substantial advance notice.
-To what extent did service providers take advantage of this advance notice to stage communications assets such as portable cell sites to reduce the effects of the storm?
-To what extent did service providers notify consumers of their communications options in advance of the storm?
There were several instances where communications providers worked together to share resources to improve communications performance during Sandy.
-How can service providers best work together by sharing resources, such as cell sites, WiFi networks and transmission facilities? What can the Commission do to facilitate this? In what ways can these arrangements be made in advance so that they are in place when disaster strikes?
Our communications systems are increasingly reliant on electric power, both for the infrastructure and in homes and businesses: e.g., to power consumers’ mobile and home communications devices and equipment, communications companies’ central offices and cell sites, and broadcasters’ transmitters and studios:
-What level of service is needed and expected during emergencies and for what modes of communications?
-When commercial power is unavailable, how long should back-up power sources be expected to last?
-Over the years there have been many developments in back-up power practices and technology for use in communications networks. What technologies and practices are in use today and how do they affect the ability of communications service providers to maintain service during power outages? What technologies, actions, practices or requirements should be considered to help improve the availability of power?
-What challenges exist to the deployment of back-up power solutions? What cost, safety and environmental issues need to be taken into account and are there different challenges to deploying back-up power solutions for small carriers and to service in urban, suburban, and rural areas, and tribal lands?
-To what extent is back-up power provided for equipment in the home? What can be done to improve consumer awareness of the limits of any back-up battery power that may be available when commercial power fails and what can be done to improve upon these limitations?
-What capabilities do communications providers offer their customers to alleviate disruptions to communications services during an emergency, or to help maintain back-up power supplies for Internet and cable access? For example, what kinds of solutions are made available to customers to help them charge devices like cell phones?
In addition to back-up power, transport connectivity between cell sites and other network nodes failed, resulting in disruptions to wireless communications:
-How can transport, interconnection, and switching be made more reliable in disasters and less vulnerable to floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, blizzards and other damage? What other interdependencies are there that should be reduced and how?
-What are the relative advantages and disadvantages of different backhaul technologies in terms of technical feasibility, vulnerability, reliability and cost effectiveness, e.g., microwave backhaul versus fiber, and does this vary with respect to aerial or buried plans and different types of terrain? What relative resiliency and reliability characteristics would these or other technologies have in different emergency situations, such as loss of primary grid power or major physical damage to network equipment or other infrastructure?
-How can backhaul redundancy across multiple providers be ensured when communications service providers lease backhaul facilities from other companies?
Emergency communications, particularly 9-1-1 communications networks, generally remained operational during Sandy.
-What obstacles are there to connect to and receive emergency help and what technologies and actions might help? Are there unique obstacles for the elderly or people with disabilities that affect their use and access to communications regarding emergency services?
Communications services took days to recover after Sandy. This not only includes service availability, but service availability at full performance.
-How can the restoration of communications services proceed faster or services remain operational longer? For example, how would changes in availability and prioritization of fuel or other power sources such as generators help, and how could these changes be brought about? How could communications providers be enabled with improved access to important sites like studios, transmitters, central offices, cell sites, public rights-of-way. Should specialized “boomer” cell sites be deployed?
-Why would services, once restored, perform at levels inferior to those customarily enjoyed by users? How long can these performance degradations be expected to last?
-How do communications providers prioritize services and applications during a disaster in which bandwidth is constrained? How are these priorities communicated to users so they can make most effective use of their communications services?
-How has the introduction of broadband technologies into commercial communications networks made them more or less resilient to major weather events like Sandy?
-Do the elderly and people with disabilities, and other communities, have needs that require additional attention?
Users of communications services appear to lack information about the performance of the services they pay for.
-Do consumers have enough access to information about their communications services during emergencies? What additional information would help consumers? For example, would it help consumers to know the performance and reliability of the companies’ service or devices as compared to competitors during past emergencies?
-What steps can be taken to connect people better and more effectively to each other and to information in emergencies, via mobile, landline, satellite, broadcast, cable, social media or otherwise, and are there any laws or regulations that may require changing to accomplish this?
What role can libraries, community centers and schools play as temporary communication centers? How can service providers help them serve that role more effectively?