FCC holds hearings on Hurricane Sandy's damage to wireless networks, seeks answers

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The FCC conducted a pair of hearings Tuesday in New York City and Hoboken, N.J., to assess how communications networks failed in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy last fall and what should be done to prevent future network disruptions following severe storms.

The five-member commission promised in late November, about a month after the storm hit, to hold hearings to assess what went wrong. At the hearings Tuesday, the commissioners met with representatives from carriers, public utilities and local governments to sort out what can be done to make networks more resilient., However, there were few concrete answers to emerge from the proceedings.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said at the hearings that the storm exposed the frailty of networks and how much people rely on them. "They connect us to family, work and emergency services," he said, according to the New York Times. "And we sure notice when we can't get through on our phones or connect to the Internet or get TV or radio news."

Genachowski said that "the inability to communicate with family and emergency personnel during a disaster is simply unacceptable," but acknowledged that the challenges were complex and 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, according to CNET.

At the height of Hurricane Sandy, 25 percent of cell sites in 158 counties in 10 states from Virginia to Massachusetts were not operational. It took about a week for most service to be restored by all four Tier 1 carriers in the affected areas. Many cell sites switched to backup generators when the power went out, but those backups soon faltered because they ran out of fuel.

This is not the first time the FCC has investigated the problem. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the FCC recommended that carriers install backup batteries that last 24 hours at cell sites, but carriers objected and the rule was never codified.

According to the NYT, the FCC commissioners said Tuesday that some cities' zoning policies did not give cell sites enough room for bigger backup batteries. They pushed for better collaboration between the federal government and municipalities to revise zoning restrictions.

Other ideas brought up at the hearings included the expanded use of femtocells and encouraging people to send text messages to 911 instead of trying to call via cell phones.

For more:
- see this NYT article
- see this CNET article

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