Commissioner Pai Statement on Superstorm Sandy
Opening Statement of Commissioner Ajit Paiat the FCC Field Hearing on Superstorm Sandy
New York City, New York
February 5, 2013Today’s events are about listening and learning. Through this field hearing, as well as others to
come, I hope that we will gain a richer understanding of the steps we can take to improve the performance
of our communications networks and to facilitate the timely transmission of critical information during
natural disasters. Chairman Genachowski, thank you for holding today’s hearing.
There is much for us to learn. Our first job is to figure out what happened during and after
Superstorm Sandy. How did people communicate with each other? Did they use wireline networks or
wireless phones? How did they receive information about the storm? Were callers able to reach
emergency services, and if not, why not? Were emergency personnel able to communicate with each
other? Which communications networks worked? Which did not, and why? Did copper lines weather
the storm best? Did coaxial cable? Did fiber? Did wires attached to poles perform better or worse than
those buried in conduits? After the storm, how did repair efforts proceed? How quickly were networks
Once we’ve determined what happened, we then must take the lessons learned and look to the
future. Of course, there are some things that we already know. For one, we know that improving the
resilience of communications networks should be one of our major goals moving forward. Americans,
particularly those in New York City, are intimately familiar with the slogan “too big to fail.” Well,
simply put, our communications networks are too important to fail. That is especially true during natural
disasters because the ability to communicate may be a matter of life and death. So we must examine what
can be done to improve these networks in order to minimize disruptions when disaster strikes again, as it
We also know that reliable power is essential to communications during public safety
emergencies. Unfortunately, during Sandy persistent and widespread power outages affected several
communications networks. At one point, about one-quarter of cell sites across ten states were out of
commission, and a substantial portion of these outages resulted from the loss of power. Back-up power
can prevent networks from failing. But flooding will ruin even the sturdiest diesel generator. Large
stockpiles of fuel in urban areas may not be practical. And even the best battery or largest fuel tank will
eventually give out. So we also need to ask what steps we can take to avoid power outages in the first
place and to bring our communications networks back on the grid sooner rather than later.
To do that, we may need to bridge the communication gap between utilities and network
operators. In Sandy’s aftermath, for example, I have heard complaints that local power companies would
not coordinate with network operators. If this is true, it has to change. These companies share poles and
conduits with each other, and a coordinated response to service restoration can bring all networks back
online more quickly and efficiently. Disjointed service repair efforts only prolong the time that customers
are left in the dark or cut off from communications. And utilities and communications companies need to
start planning for the next disaster now, looking at ways to harden their networks to avoid future outages.
Another thing we know is that new, Internet Protocol-based technologies can make
communications more reliable for the public during an emergency. Traditional 911 services, while
immensely valuable, rely on older copper networks and selective routers to connect the public with
emergency personnel and to collect the information they need. Just last week, I visited a public safety
answering point in Virginia and heard firsthand how a single point of failure took down their operations
last summer. That’s unacceptable.
When the IP transition comes to emergency services, when we start deploying Next Generation
911, all of this will change. In Pike County, Pennsylvania, a short trip from New York City, 911 dispatch
moved into a state-of-the-art facility late last year. Eighteen days later, Hurricane Sandy struck. But Pike
County 911 reported that the new system held up extraordinarily well. No outages occurred at the 911
center—even though Pike County was without power for almost a week.
One major reason is that Pike County, like other next-generation facilities, employs fail-safes to
ensure that emergency services keep running. Fiber links the two Pike County facilities, allowing one
center to take over for the other in the event of an outage or to handle overflow in mass call events. Mark
Fletcher, an expert on Next Generation 911 services, recently pointed out that if you call 911 during a
mass call event, you usually get a busy signal, but if you hang up the phone and call your airline to check
on your flight, you’re going to get through. That’s because the airline industry, among others, already is
taking advantage of technology that routes calls to the call center with availability, not just the closest
one. We need these kinds of next generation systems—systems that enable not just new technology but
enhanced coordination and cooperation among public safety officials—across the country to ensure quick
and effective emergency response. That’s why upgrading our emergency systems to Next Generation 911
should be a top priority.
Yet another thing we know is that our citizens may not need to contact emergency personnel if
they receive timely, thorough information over the airwaves. I look forward to hearing from broadcasters
and others today about their efforts to keep the public safe and informed during the storm. For example,
Governor Chris Christie took to the airwaves on New Jersey 101.5’s “Ask the Governor” show to provide
information and field questions from listeners just as Sandy was making landfall. I am eager to hear
about the efforts of other broadcasters and local news teams during and after the storm.
Finally, we know that the emergency personnel and service staff who worked the ground during
Sandy deserve our continuing thanks. We rely so heavily on all of you for the thousands of thankless
tasks you do every day. And when things got tough, you made the sacrifice. I was especially touched by
the story of NYPD Officer Artur Kasprzak who was killed during Sandy while escorting seven members
of his family to safety in Staten Island. My humble thanks go out to Officer Kasprzak and to all of our
emergency personnel for their service.
In closing, I look forward to listening and learning today. The witnesses we will hear from will
help ensure that the Federal Communications Commission both understands the problems caused by
Superstorm Sandy and has the information it needs to move forward. Thank you for coming, and I look
forward to your testimony.
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