FCC Assesses Harvey’s Impact on Communications, Girds for Irma

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By Kyle Daly

The Federal Communications Commission is assessing Hurricane Harvey’s effects on communications networks even as the next Atlantic hurricane, Irma, barrels toward the United States.

Harvey appears to have caused relatively few communications outages, according to FCC data. But the storm’s long-term effects may not be clear for some time. Extreme weather events such as the two hurricanes are major tests of the resiliency of communications networks. Already, the FCC is preparing for the possibility that Irma will make landfall in the U.S. and potentially cause greater disruption.

Commission chairman Ajit Pai was in Houston, Texas, Sept. 5 to inspect damage from Harvey and visit a 911 call center, a TV broadcaster and a convention center housing many people displaced by the storm. Pai and the FCC’s staff are already preparing for Irma, a Pai spokesperson said.

Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel issued a statement Sept. 5 calling on the FCC to issue a report on Harvey’s impact on mobile and first-responder communications networks.

“We don’t have time to waste—because we know that weather emergencies can occur anywhere at any time—and learning from what happened with Harvey can help strengthen our communications networks and save lives,” Rosenworcel said in the statement.

Rosenworcel called on the agency to issue a report on Harvey that would include a “full plan” for fixing problems the storm has caused, such as overloaded 911 systems and cellular outages. Rosenworcel said she wants the report to include a framework for rebuilding any affected communications infrastructure “so that the communities that have been impacted are not permanently relegated to the wrong side of the digital divide.”

The Pai spokesperson told Bloomberg BNA that Pai agrees with Rosenworcel that it’s important for the commission to review lessons it can learn from Harvey.

Assessing Damage

The wireless industry has resisted federal efforts to bolster wireless networks in the event of a natural disaster. Those included an abortive FCC plan to impose power backup requirements for wireless cell sites after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Hurricane Sandy knocked out roughly 25 percent of wireless cell sites in its path in 2012. That storm dealt other blows to communications networks, including permanently destroying Verizon Communications Inc.'s legacy copper-based phone network on Fire Island, N.Y. Then-FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski held hearings on improving wireless network resiliency and revived talk of a power backup mandate, but the agency never produced specific rules or recommendations.

Daily communications status updates from the FCC after Harvey hit show that Texas and Louisiana may have avoided a repeat of the Sandy scenario. Wireless service outages peaked on Aug. 28 and 29, when 4.7 percent of wireless cell sites in the storm’s path were offline. The hardest-hit areas in terms of cell site outages were lightly populated coastal Texas counties like Aransas, where 18 out of 19 cell sites were down Aug. 26.

But those cell sites came back online quickly, with a majority back up in all counties by Aug. 30. Just 1.7 percent of cell sites were down as of Sept. 5 across the Harvey disaster area, as defined by the FCC and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. That was after the agencies Sept. 3 shrunk the designated disaster area to 13 counties in Texas, down from 64 counties and parishes across Texas and Louisiana. All the cell sites in the vast majority of the jurisdictions no longer included in the disaster area were in service by Sept. 2, according to the FCC’s data.

The FCC data indicate that emergency service networks proved generally sturdy as the storm raged. Just two locales saw 911 service go down altogether at any point since the storm started: Portland, Texas, and Calhoun County, Texas, both of which had already issued mandatory evacuation orders by the time the service went out. A number of other locales saw 911 service rerouted to neighboring dispatchers.

At least 153,850 cable TV and wireline internet subscribers were still without service because of Harvey as of Sept. 5. That’s down from a a peak of at least 283,593 subscribers who lacked service on Aug. 29, but it’s unclear how long it will be before service is restored to those still without it.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kyle Daly in Washington at kdaly@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Keith Perine at kperine@bna.com

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