FCC Chief Calls for Better 911

Martin reveals lessons from two hurricanes

The issue of emergency communications has become a priority for Washington regulators and lawmakers after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita exposed massive communications failures. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, who appeared at two of three hearings on the issue last week, took time out with B&C's John Eggerton to discuss the lessons learned and the improvements needed.

In response to the hurricanes, the FCC got good marks from both Congress and the industry for cutting through regulatory red tape to allow stations to get on however they could. Why?

We tried to identify immediately afterward what were the likely things the industry might need, like special temporary authority to allow public broadcasters, in some instances, to put on commercials to raise money for the victims.

We spent a lot of the first few days reaching out to all of the broadcast stations and cable operators to understand how they were impacted by the hurricane and what steps we could take.

Entercom had identified for us problems they were having getting fuel for their generator to be able to continue broadcasting [on WWL]. They were at one point the only station that was still up and running in New Orleans.

They had identified a fuel source that was too far away, and they would have run out of fuel. So we coordinated with FEMA to identify a source of fuel that would be closer that they could get to the generator.

The Emergency Alert System (EAS) was not triggered during the hurricanes. Is there anything you can do to make it easier to trigger such alerts?

We do need a more robust EAS system that is able to take advantage of these other technologies so that we can alert people not just over the air with radio and TV but through other forms of communications.

The commission has taken certain steps in the context of cable and satellite, and it can take other steps in the context of other media. There are discussions about integrating other two-way devices, such as cellphones.

But the actual triggering of the alerts has to be done by the public-safety officials nationally or at the local or regional level. The commission doesn't really play a role, and can't play a role, in determining when an emergency is coming on a local or regional level. But what we can do is make sure that the technologies are capable of making sure that, when that emergency alert triggers, consumers have all the information they can possibly have about it.

What steps can you take?

The FCC has had a notice outstanding for a while on what to do about the transition to digital technologies, radio and TV, and how we should handle multichannel video providers like cable and satellite. I think the commission will update the rules in the context of how they should be imposed in the digital world.

I think it should further explore whether we can integrate these other technologies or whether that is something Congress needs to require of other agencies.

Do EAS requirements currently apply to DTV stations?

No. The EAS rules were developed when TV and radio were analog. We issued a notice a year ago asking how the EAS rules should apply for digital broadcasting.

Incorporating mobile devices [into an alert system] is a longer-term issue, and I will propose we do a further notice on that.

But the issue of requiring cable and broadcasters to come into compliance will be part of our order for all of our digital mass media, including digital radio, digital TV, cable and satellite. I have proposed to my fellow commissioners that we go ahead and do that, and I am hoping we will be able to do it by the October meeting.

Are you in favor of opening up more spectrum for higher-powered “smart radios” if they aid in emergency communications? What about the potential interference to DTV stations?

I think that we have to be sure that emergency responders have radios that can communicate seamlessly among both various public-safety entities, like the police and fire department and hospitals or ambulances, and that they can communicate with people coming into an area in time of emergency.

Either they need to all operate on similar frequencies or have radios smart enough to tune to the same frequency. That is important to public safety going forward.

Unlicensed devices [such as smart radios] have provided for some great innovation and at times can be much more efficient users of spectrum, but I think there is always a balance between unlicensed and licensed. For certain operations, it is important that they are in a licensed band because they need protections from interference, whereas unlicensed devices operate in a kind of a “wild-West” area where they have certain power limits but there is no protection from interference.

So I think it important that we continue to have a balance of both unlicensed, for technologies to develop and be easily deployed, and licensed devices to make sure that they have certain guaranteed protections from interference.