The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has announced its second National Field Hearing on Thursday, February 28th, from 1 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. Pacific Time, at NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, California, to examine challenges to the nation’s communications systems during natural disasters and other times of crisis.   An agenda has not yet been released.  This FCC public hearing is one of the first times in recent years a national hearing on reliability and resilience of communications systems is being held on the West Coast.

The FCC sets policy in the public safety emergency communications areas, particularly for 9-1-1 and E9-1-1, emergency alerting, operability and interoperability of public safety communications, communications infrastructure protection and disaster response, and network security and reliability.  In a major natural disaster or other crisis rising to the level of a national emergency, the FCC’s mission is to ensure continuous operations and restore critical communications systems and services.  Examples of the FCC’s work include:

(1)    The Emergency Alert System, a national public warning system requiring TV and radio broadcasters, cable television operators, satellite digital audio radio providers, and direct broadcast satellite operators to provide communications capability for the President to address the nation;

(2)    9-1-1 and E9-1-1 emergency alert and warning systems about impending disasters and other emergencies, using multiple communications technologies to reach the public, including wireless communications devices;

(3)    An interoperable public safety communications system for users, using the 700 MHz spectrum, the 800 MHz spectrum and VHF/UHF narrowbanding; and,

(4)    During an emergency, the FCC collects outage data, working with the communications sector to understand what is operational versus non-operational due to the disaster, and to assist in restoration of the critical services.

In the last few years, the FCC has increased its activity in this area, particularly after the Japanese 9.0 earthquake and the 23-foot tsunami that followed on March 11, 2011.  Best practices were sought to be learned from Japanese officials after that major disaster.  The FCC says it is looking at ways to strengthen the reliability and resiliency of the nation’s communications system, especially during this time of rapid transition from legacy networks (landline telephone or cable networks) to new broadband technology.  Reliability of communication systems is of great importance to public safety, health care providers, and the financial sector, not to mention educational institutions, business and consumers.   In the last few years, the FCC opened dockets to look at existing efforts by the affected industries to address continuity of communications service during major disasters, standards for broadband networks, and the FCC’s role and legal authority in this area.