FCC holds first hearing on Sandy communications failures

FCC is conducting field hearings to examine what went wrong following Superstorm Sandy, and how to keep Internet and wireless service up following the next disaster.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
3 min read
A hardware store in the West Village offered power strips so that the thousands of people in the neighborhood who were without power after Hurricane Sandy could charge their cell phones and other gadgets. Marguerite Reardon/CNET

The Federal Communications Commission held the first of several planned field hearings today in Hoboken, N.J., to review what went wrong with the nation's communications network during Superstorm Sandy.

The storm, which was one of the worst to hit the East Coast of the United States, knocked out about 25 percent of all cell sites and cable service in the 10 states affected by the storm. Of course, in certain regions where the storm hit the hardest, such as New York and New Jersey, these figures were much greater.

In Long Beach, N.Y., on Long Island, every cell tower was knocked out by Sandy, Long Beach city manager Jack Schirman told commissioners during the first panel discussion.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, who convened the hearings as a fact-finding mission to help figure out what went wrong and how to improve things for future disasters, said that the industry must do better to ensure that wireless and Internet service remain operational during such disasters, especially as people rely on these services more and more.

"The inability to communicate with family and emergency personnel during a disaster is simply unacceptable," Genachowski said.

He acknowledged that the challenges exposed during Sandy are complex. Specifically, he pointed to the fact that many of the communications failures were due to "the interrelation of our electric grid and our communications networks."

"The fact is we rely on our electric grid to power individual devices, to power antenna towers and other elements of fixed and mobile communications networks, and to power the central offices, switches and other sophisticated equipment that connect it all together," he said.

Indeed, millions were without power from Maine to the Carolinas, with areas such as New York and New Jersey taking the brunt. Some people were without power for more than a week. And in many of those areas, Internet and wireless services were not operational without power.

The Edison Electric Institute's Ed Comer testified at the hearing and acknowledged the interdependence between the communications network and the nation's power grid. His organization represents shareholder-owned electric companies and its members consist of 70 percent of the U.S. electric power industry.

But he said that the issue is not a simple one to solve. He said there needs to be more and better coordination at the local and state level. He also said that consumers' expectations for keeping the power up and running and for restoring it in a timely fashion have increased over the recent past as more consumers rely on devices and services that require an always-on power source.

"After Hurricane Katrina (in 2005), our companies in the South said customers lost patience after five days without power," he said. "Now customers in that region who are affected by storms, expect power restoration within three days."

Genachowski also emphasized the need for the communications industry to prepare better for such emergencies and account for power outages.

"Last month, the FCC issued a detailed report examining the failures of 911 communications after the derecho, which caused massive power outages across the mid-Atlantic this past summer," he said. "A key take-away from that report was that many of the problems encountered at that time could have been avoided if known best practices had been followed."

It will be interesting to see what the FCC will recommend once it has completed its field hearings.