October 28, 2013 - 11:08 am
By David Turetsky | Chief, Public Safety & Homeland Security Bureau

It’s been a year since Hurricane Sandy struck a devastating blow to communities in the Eastern United States. Since then, America’s recovery efforts have focused not only on rebuilding but also on resiliency – that is, improving our ability to withstand future disasters. The lessons learned from the storm are shaping the FCC’s work as well.

Hurricane Sandy was a powerful reminder of the importance of resilient communications networks – whether you are calling for help, checking on the well-being of loved ones, or just trying to resume day-to-day business after a disaster strikes. Unfortunately, millions of Americans faced communications problems after the storm. For example, at its peak, Sandy disabled approximately 25 percent of cell sites in the affected region – and more than 50 percent in the hardest-hit counties. But some wireless providers fared better than others because of the preparations they undertook, suggesting that there are additional steps providers can take to bolster network resiliency.

In fact, the Commission held field hearings after Hurricane Sandy to hear from stakeholders about how to improve disaster-time communications. Based on one of the ideas raised, the Commission recently proposed rules that would require wireless service providers to publicly disclose the percentage of cell sites within their networks that are operational during and immediately after disasters. The concept is simple: by providing consumers with a yardstick for comparing wireless performance in emergencies, this proposal could empower consumers and in turn create competitive incentives in the wireless industry to improve network reliability. We are seeking public comment on this and other approaches.

Because the great majority of 911 calls are now placed from wireless phones, this proceeding seeks to improve the reliability of the networks used to originate most emergency calls. Also this year, the Commission proposed measures to improve the reliability of the wireline facilities that are needed to complete 911 calls, especially during disasters. More specifically, the Commission proposed rules to ensure that the wireline network providers that route calls to 911 call centers implement vital best practices in network design, maintenance, and operation. We took this action after investigating the widespread 911 outages that occurred after another destructive storm hit parts of America last year, and the Commission plans to consider adoption of final rules in this proceeding at its November meeting.

The Communications Security, Reliability, and Interoperability Council (CSRIC), a federal advisory committee to the FCC, is also part of the effort to improve network reliability. Last month, the Commission tasked this public-private group with examining the cooperative methods that service providers have used in recent years, or could use, to sustain communications during emergencies (for example, sharing infrastructure and back-up power assets, or striking in-market roaming agreements). CSRIC will then recommend best practices that service providers can apply in future emergencies.

These are just a few examples of the initiatives underway at the FCC to ensure that America’s communications networks are as resilient as possible. As all stakeholders working to improve network reliability would no doubt agree, it’s a year-round job. We can’t prevent all network outages from occurring, and we unfortunately can’t avert all disasters. But we can work together to enhance the ability of Americans to communicate during times of crisis.