FCC: IP Vital For Emergency Communications

by Roy Mark

UPDATED: As Rita bears down on Texas, FCC chairman tells Congress IP-based technologies are essential for safety.

UPDATED: With Hurricane Rita promising a reprise of the communications collapse during Hurricane Katrina earlier this month, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Kevin Martin told lawmakers Thursday the Internet must become a vital part of the nation's emergency response system.

According to the FCC, Katrina knocked down more than 3 million customer telephone lines in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. More than 20 million telephone calls did not go through the day after Katrina. Local wireless networks fared no better with more than 1,000 cell sites out of service.

Even if calls had been able to get through, first responders were hamstrung by the fact that thirty-eight 911 call centers went down.

"We should take full advantage of IP-based technologies to enhance the resiliency of a traditional communications network," Martin told a Senate panel. "IP technology provides the dynamic capability to change and reroute telecommunications traffic within the traditional network."

Martin added that when traditional systems fail, IP-based technologies will enable service providers to more quickly restore service and provide the flexibility to initiate service at new locations.

"If we learned anything from Hurricane Katrina, it is that we cannot rely solely on terrestrial communications," Martin said. "We should use new technologies so that first responders can take advantage of whatever terrestrial network is available."

Martin said smart radios would allow first responders to find any available towers or infrastructure on multiple frequencies. He added that Wi-Fi, spread spectrum and other frequency-hopping techniques would allow emergency workers to use limited spectrum quickly and efficiently.

Most of all, Martin urged, any emergency alert system should "incorporate the Internet, which was designed by the military for its robust network redundancy functionalities."

Martin also used his testimony to again support the FCC's position that all Voice over IP (VoIP) providers ensure that e911 services are fully incorporated into Internet telephony.

In May, the FCC ruled that all Internet telephony companies that interconnect with the public switched telephone network (PSTN) must route VoIP-orginated E911 calls directly to emergency dispatchers along with the location of the caller. The FCC set a November deadline for VoIP providers to comply with the order.

"The obligation to provide access to emergency operators should not be optional for any telephone service provider -- regardless of whether that provider is wireless, wireline, cable or VoIP," Martin said.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) told Martin Congress will provide the FCC with all the authority it needs to impose e911 obligations on VoIP carriers.

Sen. John Sununu (R-NH), though, questioned the FCC's additional mandate that Internet telephone companies notify subscribers that their E911 service is different from traditional emergency calling services with customer affirmative responses due by Sept. 28.

Under the FCC order, VoIP providers are required to cut off phone service to those customers who do not acknowledge the warning.

Sununu pointed out that VoIP service was one of the few telecom systems functioning during Hurricane Katrina, a point underscored by Vonage Chairman and CEO Jeffrey Citron.

"Much like Sept. 11, phone networks failed. Wireless networks failed. Satellite phones stopped working," Citron told lawmakers. "But the Internet was still alive in some places and so was Internet phone service."

Citron said Vonage was able to maintain service to New Orleans because of the redundant nature of the Internet.

"The flexibility that allows our service to work over any high-speed Internet connection anywhere is the reason our subscribers are able to communicate in the midst of the Katrina disaster," he said.

Citron admitted some Vonage customers were unable to use their VoIP service.

"This is primarily because those users lacked power and because our partner serving New Orleans was unable to send calls from the telephone network to Vonage's Internet gateways," Citron testified.

Stevens also said he expects his committee to approve in October a hard date for television broadcasters to vacate their analog spectrum to clear space for emergency responder wireless communications.

This article was originally published on Friday Sep 23rd 2005