FCC Must Provide Guidance On Natural Disasters

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After disasters, the FCC and the American people must decide not just whether to rebuild, but also how to rebuild.


August 29 will be the 8th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, a storm that left a level of devastation and death in the Gulf Coast that horrified our nation. Soon after the storm in 2005 there was an open debate about whether it was smart to rebuild in cities such as New Orleans, where the cost to build back the city’s defenses against future storms was great due to the natural terrain and the level of technology needed to do the job. Residents had to choose if they would return to their homes and invest in making their communities whole again, or simply start over in a new town where the prospects where better.

This decision is not unlike what communities faced following the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy along the New York and New Jersey coast in 2012. In both instances, residents decided that their community was “stronger than the storm” and that they would restore their communities back to a place that worked for all its people and businesses.

Now the FCC faces a similar decision. After all previous natural disasters, such as Katrina, telecom and communications companies worked with the FCC to establish an understanding that they would, given adequate time by the agency, build back the parts of their network that had been destroyed in the disaster. Building out communications networks is expensive, time-consuming work and so the FCC set up a system under section 214(a) of the Communications Act for phone companies to ask for that needed time and flexibility.

Hurricane Sandy was the first time when a company, in this instance Verizon, has said they will not build back their old network, but instead deploy a different service. Public Knowledge has detailed how Verizon’s substitute, VoiceLink, is not comparable to the quality of service in its old copper network.

On August 19, President Obama’s Hurricane Sandy Task Force released a report which provided 69 policy recommendations to help with the regional rebuilding effort and ensure communities are better able to withstand and recover from future storms. However, none of the recommendations in this report provide guidance or expectation as to how to rebuild communications networks and with what level of service.

In the meantime, we are in the middle of a new hurricane season and so far the United States has been fortunate not to have been hit by a serious storm. In recent months however, wildfires have ravaged western states and the Midwest has seen fierce tornados and annual flooding. Consumers deserve to know that when disasters occur and they are faced with the choice of rebuilding their community or starting over elsewhere, that the agency charged with protecting their access to communications networks has a plan for dealing with loss of services and network restoration.

Recently at the 2013 Aspen Forum, Verizon Vice President for Public Policy Randal Milch said, “trying to extract a lesson about network evolution from [Hurricane Sandy’s destruction of] Fire Island is simply a mistake”. And yet in the absence of other actions by the FCC, that is just what their open docket on restoring service to Fire Island and other Sandy-hit communities will do—act as precedent and lesson for future storms. It is for this reason that fellow providers AT&T and Centurylink have supported Verizon’s position that it may replace the lost copper network with a less reliable wireless service with fewer capabilities.

No one can predict when another storm will come. At the same time, no one ever predicted that phone providers would rebuild with a less capable network. In order to reassure Americans that they will not lose comparable service to what they currently have due to natural disasters, Public Knowledge and others have called on the FCC to open a proceeding on hurricane or natural disaster guidance.

Citizens and legislators cannot wait until a disaster strikes to figure out what sort of communications service they want and if their provider will build it.

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