Among the many challenges facing the nation during large-scale emergencies is the performance of U.S. wired and wireless communications networks. As evidenced by the Northeast region’s experience during historic Superstorm Sandy, the widespread disruption and even failure of critical communications functions when disaster strikes can put citizens in danger, impede emergency efforts, and slow the recovery.
On Feb. 5, 2013, Stevens Institute of Technology hosted a field hearing organized by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) designed to examine challenges to the nation’s communications networks during natural disasters and in other times of crisis.
“At Stevens, our university mission is to contribute solutions to serious global problems through technology-centric research and education,” said Stevens Provost George Korfiatis. “It is therefore our honor to contribute to this critical dialogue about national communication and connectivity issues exposed by Superstorm Sandy.”
The hearing at Stevens – whose hometown of Hoboken was hit particularly hard by Superstorm Sandy – included two expert panels featuring academic scientists, wireless providers, public officials, emergency personnel and media business leaders. These experts assessed the current resilience of U.S. communications networks and offered recommendations to improve them in the future, focusing on the unique challenges faced by communications service providers, state and local officials, first responders and consumers before, during and after Superstorm Sandy.
“Protecting the national communications infrastructure will safeguard citizens, aid emergency response and speed disaster recovery,” said Stevens CIO David Dodd, one of the panelists. “This hearing uncovered innovative ideas to strengthen and improve network resiliency in the face of another crisis.”
One panel focused on “Communicating in Times of Emergency.” Moderated by FCC Chief of Public Safety David Turetsky, the panelists included: Chuck Bell, Program Director for Consumers Union; Dave Davis, President and GM of WABC-TV; John Hogan, CEO of Clear Channel radio; Emily Rahimi, Manager of Social Media for the FDNY; and Nigel Snoad, Product Manager for Google Crisis Response.
Hogan and Davis discussed the media’s role in notifying the public about weather alerts, emergency preparedness, where to go for help, and other critical public service announcements. Both Clear Channel radio and WABC-TV activated emergency plans prior to the storm, tested primary and backup systems, ensured they had adequate fuel for generators if regular power sources were lost, and adjusted programming to focus almost exclusively on crucial storm-related news before, during and after Sandy. Both networks also used digital platforms and social media to communicate in real time to listeners and viewers.
“The challenge was two-fold: to prepare ourselves and to prepare our viewers,” Davis said.
Snoad and Rahimi focused on the role of the digital and online world in emergencies.
According to Snoad, Google’s suite of disaster relief products – including public alerts, crisis maps and adaptive search results – greatly aided the public when Sandy hit. For example, Google partnered with the National Weather Service and other agencies to provide official and accurate alerting information during relevant Google searches, as well as point people who searched for certain key terms to the most relevant resources available.
“People come to Google to find information during crisis,” Snoad said. “We see incredible peaks in queries about particular themes, such as, ‘Where is gas available?”
Rahimi personally disseminated calls for emergency help that came to the FDNY through Twitter to appropriate dispatchers during the storm. She said social media was a critical tool in providing information to people who lost all other methods of communication and to quickly stop the spread of false rumors online that could cause panic.
Bell’s remarks referred to the challenges consumers face when they switch from landlines to mobile phones as their primary method of communication. During Sandy, millions of mobile and broadband customers faced serious service disruptions. Bell called for minimum standards for network resilience for all telecommunications carriers and new methods to hold those carriers accountable, especially during emergencies. He also said more cooperation and consumer-friendly services from carriers – sharing signals, offering free temporary public Wi-Fi hotspots, providing consumers with backup phone batteries, and offering refunds after service is disrupted – are some ways to better protect consumers in the future.
The second panel addressed “New Ideas to Improve Communications Services.” Led by moderator Sean Lev, General Counsel of the FCC, the panelists included: Dodd; Brian Fontes, CEO of the National Emergency Number Association; Shiv Panwar, Professor at Polytechnic Institute of NYU; Bill Smith, President of Network Operations at AT&T; and Paul Rotella of the New Jersey Association of Broadcasters.
Smith talked about technology solutions the telecommunications industry is implementing that may improve disaster response in the future. AT&T is specifically looking at hardening transport infrastructure – the facility that connects cell towers back into the core network. It is also looking at microwave systems, which can give more capacity, free space optic systems to transmit signals over the short term, and different power capabilities such as fuel cells and additional generator systems.
Most of all, he said carriers must cooperate.
“Before people want water, food or shelter, they want to communicate,” Smith said. “This is a very competitive industry, but mutual aid among carriers is absolutely essential.”
Panwar reiterated Smith’s point by sharing his research on the cooperation between cellular providers. He has found that when two cellular providers are merged, the result is quadruple – not double – the capacity. This is because carriers in the U.S. maintain their own cell towers and all are transitioning to 4G LTE technology. Panwar said that in times of crisis, facilitating methods for all carriers to pool resources is a great mechanism to restore service.
Fontes called for 9-1-1 centers across the nation to adopt 21st century technology, enabling the public to communicate in all forms – voice, photos, video and data. 21st century technology in 9-1-1 centers would allow dispatchers to receive better location data, enable the rerouting of calls to different centers if one was compromised, ensure seamless communication to first responders, and improve other crucial emergency services.
Rotella discussed the important of radio broadcasting in emergencies and citied regular inspection of equipment and technology as critical to improving broadcasters’ performance for the next storm.
Finally, Dodd said Sandy reinforced the need for strategic use of the web and cloud services for communications networks and infrastructure – an effort currently underway at Stevens.
In addition to the expert panelists, there were many distinguished guests in attendance at the hearing. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski was joined by three FCC Commissioners – Mignon Clyburn, Jessica Rosenworcel and Ajit Pai. Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer, who worked closely with Stevens volunteers during the Superstorm Sandy recovery, also attended the event. Each provided remarks to the audience at Stevens.
“Sandy revealed just how essential it is to have communications services available when we most need it,” Genachowski said.
As communications regulators, we must do all within our power to prepare our wired and wireless communications networks, 9-1-1 systems and other infrastructure for future unexpected events,” Clyburn added.