Hill To Deal With Katrina Communications

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Look for the communications problems of first responders in New Orleans to come up even before the DTV hard-date hearings expected in the House and Senate in the next week or two.

For its part, the House Commerce Committee is planning to delay or reschedule an 11 a.m. hearing on Medicaid Wednesday in favor of a Katrina-related hearing where Chairman Joe Barton is expected to bring up the issue of emergency communications.

A witness list has not been finalized, but one source said an FCC speaker has been lined up. According to a Senate source, the Homeland Security Committee's hearing next week is expected to include a review of public safety communications. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Steven is also a member of that committee.

Last week, Senator John Kerry said that Congress would have to consider hurricane-related communications failures in the context of new bills to set a hard date for the return of analog spectrum. Those bills were expected to be hashed out beginning as early as this week, but they are likely delayed until next week by other pressing issues, including Supreme Court nominees and Katrina.

Senator John McCain has been the most vocal critic of broadcasters for what he says has been foot-dragging on the reclamation of spectrum for wireless and other advanced services, some of which is supposed to go toward improving police and fire communications during emergencies. McCain has been in Italy and was not available for comment.
Broadcasters' have committed to a 2009 hard date, but the National Association of Broadcasters has long held that the analog spectrum is already in use by some important first-responders--broadcasters, who last week continued to report on the storm despite threats to facilities and staffers.