The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) held a field hearing on network resilience and reliability at NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field in California on Thursday.  This was the second national field hearing, with a prior set of field hearings held in New York City and Hoboken, New Jersey relating to Superstorm Sandy on February 5th.  This field hearing had a decided California flavor.  The focus of this hearing was on innovative network technologies, smart power solutions, social media and mobile applications might do to improve communications network resiliency in times of disaster.

Chairman Julius Genachowski opined that broadband is essential to our daily lives, and high reliability is important as a result.  With 30 percent of Americans relying on cellphones, he said it is critical that users be able to reach 9-1-1.  The FCC is working on “Next Gen 9-1-1”, improving location accuracy for mobile 9-1-1, and enabling wireless emergency alerts to allow local authorities to send warnings and texts to people in affected geographic areas.  The Chairman announced that the FCC Staff had conducted a comprehensive analysis of the “super Derecho” violent thunderstorms.  A Notice of Proposed Rulemaking would be considered at the March FCC meeting.

Commissioner Robert McDowell said that Hurricane Sandy and last summer’s Derecho storms were “a wake-up call.” During the Derecho storm, over 2.5 million people in the Washington D.C. area could not access 911 services.  The FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau found many of the outages could have been prevented with reliable and functional back-up power, monitoring systems and implementation of industry best practices.

“All too often, backup power systems are not functioning properly or long enough, leaving these networks silent until downed power grids can be restored,” McDowell said. He appealed to government and the private sector to work together on these issues.

Commissioner Rosenworcel, fresh from the Mobile World Congress in Bacelona, remarked on two images that informs her thinking on these issues.  While the Congress was a diverse group from all over the world, they shared a deep abiding belief in the ability of the digital age wireless services to remake the world we live in by expanding opportunity, fostering economic growth and improving civil life everywhere.  The second image she had was of a New York City police department worker during Hurricane Sandy.  As flood waters rose and the wired telephone central offices were flooded and rendered inoperable, this police worker grabbed a laptop and began taking down frantic distress messages from Twitter and getting them to emergency authorities.  “This was awfully ad hoc,” the Commissioner lamented, saying she realized then just how fragile our communications infrastructure is.  She asked for help grappling with the ways that the digital age makes us more powerful, and yet reducing the fragility that comes with our dependence.

Commissioner Ajit Pai praised efforts to get useful information about emergencies out to the public. One example he gave was the new Public Alerts feature of Google, available at http://www.google.org/publicalerts.  Pai asked the FCC to examine how emergency information is reaching diverse communities, and ensuring that critical emergency information be in-language.   In a video, Commissioner Mignon Clyburn echoed Pai’s concern on emergency calls from diverse communities, including those with accessibility challenges.  Also, Clyburn is concerned that we tend to treat each network as independent in the current reliability framework, yet the reality is that networks (telecom, wireless, electrical) are inextricably linked to the other.

Senator Alex Padilla, Chair of the California Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee, noted he had held a Sacramento hearing two weeks ago focusing on how California can implement Next Generation 911, new wireless emergency alert systems, and public safety broadband networks. He said California considers itself the epicenter of the digital and app economy, but at the same time we live in the epicenter of seismic activity.  He advocated for an advance warning system that would give residents time to take cover, pull off the road, exit a building, and authorities time to stop a train or power down critical infrastructure.  These advance warning systems already exist in Japan, Italy, Turkey and Mexico.

Panel One:

Hirohito Noda of NTT DOCOMO USA Inc. (NTT), the dominant mobile voice, data and multimedia services provider in Japan, shared learning after its devastating March 2011 Fukushima earthquake and tsunami.  NTT had over 6,000 wireless base stations and 45% of other base stations become inoperable.  The power outage rendering 86% of the population without power was the biggest problem.  NTT is securing communications for 104 key administrative centers, with powerful wireless facilities with 4.3-mile coverage radius.  NTT is also installing large generators in its facilities that cover 65% of the national population.  NTT is upgrading mobile phone facilities, to make more capacity available in times of emergency.  Finally NTT is improving emergency communications particular packet data services during disasters.  Nayee Islam of Qualcomm Research Silicon Valley highlighted its LTE Direct project, which enables two devices to “discover” each other’s presence and communicate within a 500 meter reach regardless of whether the normal communications infrastructure is operable.   He also described a new advanced WiFi technology that gave new indoor communication capability inside buildings to improve locational awareness for emergency responders. Islam’s last example was the use of small cell “hyper dense” technology both in indoor and outdoor applications.

Haresh Kamath, Program Manager for Energy Storage of the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) in Palo Alto, focused his comments on improving back up power options to support the reliability of telecom networks.  He discussed lead-acid batteries, lithium-ion batteries, diesel generators, advanced natural gas generators and renewable energy options.  Kamath suggested consumers keep their devices like laptops, tablets and cell phones charged as much as possible.  He reminded us that laptops can charge a wireless phone, and so can your car using a car charger.  Thomas Nagel, Comcast Senior VP Business Development and Strategy, Communications and Data Services, described how Comcast opened 20,000 Wi-Fi hotspots to the public just before Superstorm Sandy and Winter Storm Nemo earlier this month.  Nagel said Comcast carried 7 terabytes more data and eight times the normal sessions the week of Nemo than in the week prior.

Panel Two:  Alicia Johnson, City of San Francisco’s Department of Emergency Resilience and Recovery Manager, emphasized that social media is here to stay, and so interaction with social media necessary for emergency personnel.  She highlighted two services:  AlertSF allows any public member who signs up to receive text messages and emails with information about emergencies; and “SF72”, the City’s comprehensive emergency preparedness website at http://www.72hours.org providing detailed information on how to prepare for major emergencies.

Fred Wolens, Facebook Public Policy Team Member, said the social network’s interaction with emergency relief information began with the Haiti earthquake in 2010.  Facebook launched its first disaster relief page, telling users how to help, raising awareness, and being a collaborative resource for those with a role (industry, government, media, non-profit organizations, etc.)   Facebook Causes now empowers anyone to start a campaign, take action and have an impact.  Wolens gave an example that Facebook credits may be used to buy water for Haiti via OxFam America.  Addressing Commissioner McDowell’s point that a  lot of misinformation exists on social media, Wolens agreed, but said Facebook has found that true information bubbles up ultimately due to collaborative and feedback mechanisms.  Wolens suggested that as families are making their emergency preparedness plan, they include a place on their favorite social media site to post messages to each other.

Ari Gesher, Palantir Technologies’ Senior Software Engineer and Engineering Ambassador, described his company’s data fusion technology which helps governments and companies respond to disasters.  He said their software allows emergency providers to make sense of massive disparate data in order to make sense of it quickly and cull out mission sensitive data.  George Chamales of Rogue Genius LLC described how he helps organizations mitigate impacts from emergencies by using gathering data dispersed on many computers and culling out the most important mission critical data.  Finally, he turns people on the ground into information sources, sending queries to find information you need.