FCC mandates seen as aid to telecoms in disasters

Von Matt Hamblen

A U.S. Federal Communications Commission mandate on network providers and related emergency communications policies would help telecommunications companies prepare for future disasters similar to Hurricane Katrina, industry experts said last week.

Hossein Eslambolchi, AT&T Corp."s CIO, called on the FCC to require every communications provider to adopt crisis management plans. AT&T has had a crisis management plan in place for several years and has invested US$350 million on 160 emergency vehicles containing repair equipment that it has stationed throughout the U.S. for any network disaster, he said.

"Like the way the U.S. responded to the Y2K problem, there needs to be mandate by the FCC for crisis management," Eslambolchi said. "It wasn"t clear to me whether a lot of crisis management [by private carriers] was done here [with Katrina]. We cannot afford to have another of these disasters."

A related improvement would be a coordinated information delivery system that provides updated information about disaster response tactics. That way, Eslambolchi said, if officials are forced to close off roads or highways, for example, repair crews carrying materials and fuel would know to find alternate routes, Eslambolchi said.

In large-scale disasters such as Katrina, communications systems that can be quickly dispatched are needed to help responders communicate, said Scott Midkiff, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. Midkiff noted that military, not civilian, communications technology contributed most effectively to the Katrina response after the deadly storm slammed into the Gulf coast Aug. 29, leaving hundreds dead.

While satellite phones and Inmarsat satellite dishes provided some relief to hard-hit communications networks in the Gulf Coast during the past two weeks, many of the military units that arrived in the Gulf coast region last week relied on higher bandwidth IP satellite connections. Herndon, Va.based Segovia Inc. provided IP satellite connectivity, rolling out about 35 units.

One advantage of Segovia"s technology is that it costs far less than satellite phones on a per-minute basis and uses the IP standard, said Segovia Executive Vice President Kirby Farrell. At a price of about 2 cents per minute for IP satellite connectivity -- compared to more than $1 per minute for a satellite phone -- Farrell said a business or a consortium of businesses could better afford to provision the service, which would start as low as $25,000.

Gartner Inc. analysts also urged business groups to join forces to purchase portable cellular stations for disasters.

During the response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York in 2001, Eslambolchi said utilities and communications providers also benefited from a mutual assistance restoration consortium, which helped determine which services needed to be restored first, and where.

Bill Hummel, director of advanced services for Verizon Enterprise Solutions Group, which is part of Verizon Inc., counsels businesses on setting up communications disaster recovery plans. He urges them to assume they will lose all local communications in a disaster. What that assumption implies is that alternate network pathways and automatic switching of critical data must be provided for ahead of time, he said.

"People should learn the lessons of Katrina, because we could get something worse," Hummel said.