Years After 9-11 and Katrina, Emergency Networks Still Inadequate

Carl Weinschenk

It's intensely disheartening to find that this long after September 11, Hurricane Katrina and disasters in other countries -- including, just within the last several weeks, the typhoon in Myanmar and the earthquake in China -- emergency communications systems are still struggling to get the bandwidth and budgets they need to get built.


This Washington Post story says that the U.S. Capitol Police suffer dead spots and have trouble interconnecting with local police. Indeed, the phones went down during President Bush's State of the Union address in January. In another incident, the police had to use their personnel cell phones when all the channels of the the emergency network crashed. The piece says that the U.S. Park Police are suffering similar troubles with their system, which is 20 to 30 years old, and that 84 percent of FBI radios nationwide are obsolete.


The 700 MHz auction held in January was designed in part to produce the spectrum for a nationwide emergency network. It didn't quite work out that way. The D-block bidding didn't meet the $1.3 billion reserve price and thus the plan was momentarily scuttled. Converge! Network Digest says that the FCC is trying again -- perhaps in a couple of different ways -- and is asking for comments on several issues in an effort to make the next initiative attractive to bidders. The questions are broad, and include such things as rules for governing public safety priority access to networks, performance requirements and license terms and the fee structure of the service.


The FCC isn't the only agency at least appearing to address the issue. However, after its role in Katrina, it's difficult to say whether the fact that The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) -- a unit of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) -- is taking over development of a mobile phone alert system is good news or bad. That uncertainty notwithstanding, this RCR Wireless News story reports that FEMA will announce a common alerting protocol in a month or two and that the system will be operational in 12 to 18 months. There was some question about whether FEMA had the statutory authority to execute the project, which was signed into law by the President two years ago.


There are plenty of tools available in the private sector. One potential for first responder and emergency communications are wireless networks. It's abundantly clear that the first iteration of municipal Wi-Fi has failed. However, proponents say the culprit wasn't the technology, but rather the business plan and the main service provider, Earthlink. The thinking is that using municipalities as the anchor tenants on networks with sounder business plans could give this sector a second life.


First responder networks are a key element of such projects. Moreover, a particular type of wireless network -- mesh -- is particularly promising. Such networks can be thrown up quickly and reconfigured in an agile manner.


Much of this information suggests great promise in the field. It seems, however, that we are always at the point of great promise and few results. This status quo simply is unacceptable on a topic as important as having fully functioning emergency and first-responder networks.

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