FCC to hold hearings on post-Sandy wireless performance

The Federal Communications Commission will look at how to make the communications more resilient after disasters like superstorm Sandy.

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
4 min read
AT&T works to restore service in Manhattan following outages from Hurricane Sandy. AT&T

The Federal Communications Commission plans to hold a series of hearings over the next few months to discuss ways to avoid losing communications during and after disasters such as superstorm Sandy.

FCC chairman Julius Genachowski today said the agency would look at the challenges facing communications networks and offer recommendations for improving the resiliency of these networks. The first set of hearings will begin in early 2013 in New York City, one of the areas hardest hit by the storm. Additional hearings will follow in other parts of the country.

"This unprecedented storm has revealed new challenges that will require a national dialogue around ideas and actions to ensure the resilience of communications networks," he said in a statement. "As our thoughts and sympathies remain with those who have suffered loss and damage as a result of superstorm Sandy, I urge all stakeholders to engage constructively in the period ahead."

During and after the storm, roughly 25 percent of consumers in areas hit hard by Sandy lost service. This included wireless as well as cable customers.

The focus of the hearings will be to determine how to ensure communications for first responders, government emergency personnel, and consumers.

One of the areas that the FCC will pay particular attention to is the reliance these networks have on commercial power. This is important for consumers both in the home and within the communications infrastructure. New voice over IP services from cable services and phone companies require broadband modems have power in the home to keep the service going.

But the infrastructure itself also relies on power. And during the storm, there was not adequate power to much of the communications infrastructure resulting in no wireless, broadband, or voice services in some areas.

The FCC said it plans to ask a series of questions on this topic.

  • What level of service is needed and expected during emergencies and for what modes of communications?
  • When commercial power is unavailable, how long should backup 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?

The FCC also wants to look at how communications providers can work more closely together during a disaster to share resources. AT&T and T-Mobile announced that they would allow roaming on each other's wireless spectrum during the disaster. But other wireless providers, such as Verizon Wireless and Sprint, which also use similar technology did not share spectrum following the disaster.

The FCC said it wants to know: How can service providers best work together by sharing resources, such as cell sites, Wi-Fi 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?

The FCC also noted that service restoration took days. And the commission said it wants to know how it can help ensure that restoration of communication services proceeds faster as well as make sure that service is operational longer. The FCC will also be asking questions about why once service was restored, that it performed at inferior levels for some customers.

Earlier this week, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer of New York asked the FCC to look into requiring communications companies to have back up power. And he urged the commission to work with telecom companies and first responders to ensure reliability and network resiliency.

"I want to thank Senator Chuck Schumer for his leadership, and welcome his call for the commission to develop a roadmap for how to better protect critical communications functions during major disasters," Chairman Genachowski said in his statement.

Schumer thanked the FCC for scheduling the hearings.

"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," 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."

Spokesmen from AT&T and Sprint declined to comment on the hearings. And Verizon Wireless was unavailable for a comment.