The FCC wants to improve cell network resiliency during natural disasters as well as its own communications reporting system. That’s why the Commissioners voted 4-0 on Thursday to adopt a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on these topics as well as strategies to mitigate the effect of power outages on communications networks.
The NPRM seeks comment on proposed improvements to the Wireless Network Resiliency Cooperative Framework, a voluntary industry agreement that includes mutual aid during disasters. One of those questions is whether broadband service outages should be reported in the agency’s mandatory Network Outage Reporting System.
Both Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel and Commissioner Brendan Carr went to Louisiana this week to see damage from Hurricane Ida. Carr said at one 911 call center they visited, messages poured in from residents during the hurricane. One message read: “Water in house. Stuck in attic,” he said during the vote. He’s hopeful for changes that would ensure “seamless” call roaming during disasters and deepen coordination between power and telecom repair crews, noting accidental fiber cuts still happen during restoration. Continue Reading
Commissioner Geoffrey Starks supports making carrier participation in the agency’s Disaster Information Recovery System (DIRS) mandatory. “During a disaster, DIRS provides a wealth of actionable information that can shape the local, state, and federal response. Today, we don’t always know if a carrier is not reporting because it has chosen not to or because it has sustained damage that makes the company unable to report,” he said. Expanded participation would make DIRS more valuable, Starks believes.
The NPRM also brings attention to back-up power. “During the 2020 earthquakes in Puerto Rico, the overwhelming majority of cell-site outages resulted from power loss, not damage to facilities. The same was true this year after Hurricane Ida,” Starks noted.
Rosenworcel said she and Carr drove from Baton Rouge to New Orleans. “Along the way we saw cruel reminders of the storm and the great damage wind and water can do—mangled store signs and piles of refuse still being cleared away.”
The agency sent personnel to Louisiana ahead of the storm and to the Federal Emergency Management Agency Regional Response Coordination Center in Dallas, Texas, to support spectrum management, perform damage assessments, and prioritize recovery efforts. It provided assistance to 911 call centers, carriers, broadcasters and State Emergency Operations Centers. The Commission set up what Rosenworcel called the “first-of-its kind team” to address coordination with utilities to prevent accidental fiber cuts during debris removal and restoration” and helped coordinate the transport of communications equipment, fuel, and other resources to help fill communications gaps.
“Communications companies worked long and hard to restore critical services,” noted the Acting Chair. “All of this made a difference. More than 98 percent of the cell sites in the affected counties have been restored. Other outages trended downward as fast as power was restored.”
But the FCC must still understand where communications fell short, where recovery took too long, and what changes can be made to make our networks more resilient before the next “unthinkable event” occurs, according to Rosenworcel. That’s why it’s seeking comments on ways to improve communications reliability during disasters.
By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief