Responding to the telecom chaos from Hurricane Irma, the Federal Communications Commission, working with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), has expanded its Disaster Information Reporting System (DIRS) data collection area to include 18 counties in Georgia and three counties in Alabama, in addition to its existing request for information from all of Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
In a notice late Monday, the FCC asked cable, broadcast, wireless and wireline providers to submit daily infrastructure status and situational awareness information until the DIRS is deactivated. Providers must send their information to the FCC's DIRS site, a voluntary, web-based system that collects status reports "during times of crisis."
Coincidentally, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, in a scheduled address to the first-ever Mobile World Congress Americas in San Francisco on Tuesday, opened his remarks with an extensive explanation of the FCC's role as part of the federal government’s disaster response efforts. Pai said it will "be a long time before we’ll be able to calculate the total amount of damage inflicted by Harvey and Irma." Then he complimented the wireless industry.
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"We already know one thing: it would have been a lot worse if it weren’t for wireless communications," Pai said.
"We work closely with DHS, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, state public safety officials, and private communications providers ... [to] monitor the status of communications networks in affected areas," Pai said. He emphasized the government agencies' efforts to "assist with recovery and restoration efforts" and to "ensure that first responders on the ground can quickly get access to the spectrum they need to communicate."
Meanwhile, the FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau moved ahead to gather data from communications providers in the affected areas. The Bureau suspended Network Outage Reporting System obligations in the affected counties where DIRS has been activated. The Commission has set a schedule for filing reports by 10 a.m. every day until DIRS is deactivated.
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Senate Adopts SANDY Act for Disaster Response
Separately, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel used the hurricane timing to congratulate the Senate for adopting the Securing Access to Networks In Disasters (SANDY) Act of 2017 on Monday night.
“In the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Harvey," Rosenworcel said in a statement, "this legislation comes not a moment too soon."
"We know that weather-related emergencies and other disasters can occur anywhere at any time," she said, adding that the legislation "promises to help speed restoration of essential communications in times of disaster." The Senate's unanimous approval of the SANDY Act on Monday night followed House passage of the companion bill last week.
Pai Cites Disaster Response in Speech to Wireless Conference
Pai emphasized the value of wireless connections throughout his opening remarks to the San Francisco Conference, the first North American version of the landmark World Mobile Congress held in Barcelona each February.
"In the case of Harvey, the one bit of good news is that wireless networks were much more resilient than in some previous disasters," he said, calling it a "lifeline."
"In the initial phase of Harvey, Houston’s main 911 emergency response center received more than 96,000 calls, many of which were from wireless phones," Pai said, drawing on his visit to Texas last week. "Many of the more than 11,000 people rescued by the Coast Guard were found because of wireless calls. That includes one 14-year-old girl who was saved after telling Siri, 'Call the Coast Guard.'”
"The past two weeks remind us that for public safety purposes alone, wireless communications during times of emergency are critical," Pai said.
He also acknowledged the launch of Apple's new iPhone 8, which was debuting at an event a few dozen miles away in the Bay Area simultaneously with his speech.
"To me, the more notable coincidence of timing and location is that it was 10 years ago, in this very building complex, that Steve Jobs debuted the very first iPhone," Pai said. He used that example to praise the wireless industry for continuing its innovation.
"We find ourselves nearing another possible hinge moment," he explained, using his term for pivotal advances in telecom technology. "We’ve seen remarkable progress, but it feels like we’re still waiting for another huge breakthrough."
"5G could well be what we’re waiting for," he said. "Going from 2G to 3G was the mobile equivalent of switching from dial-up to broadband. Similarly, the transition from 4G to 5G promises to be more than just incremental change—we could see dramatic improvements in network speed, capacity, and responsiveness that will make the impossible possible."
And he used the platform to fret again about the lack of rural wireless broadband capability.
"I personally experienced this last week while driving from Houston to Austin," Pai said. "The personal impact of the 'no service' display in that case was trivial. ... But the wireless aspect of the rural digital divide has serious costs for many people. ... The mobile marketplace is healthy, but we’ve got work to do to close the digital divide and boost network investment, which go hand in hand. And we need to tackle these issues with an eye toward revving the virtuous cycle of faster, better networks that unleash new innovations that drive additional consumer demand."
Pai also used the event as a platform to seek allies to "step up our game to combat ... unwanted and unlawful robocalls." He asked the wireless providers to help create "a reliable system ... to crack down on malicious robocallers who hide their true phone number to evade call-blocking tools and dupe consumers."
"I’m asking you to engage deeply in our effort to create a call authentication system—a sort of digital fingerprint for every phone call. This would give consumers meaningful relief from robocalls and the FCC an enormous boost in addressing this top priority," Pai said.
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