Communication Challenges After the Hurricane

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Thursday, September 15, 2005

Many survivors of Hurricane Katrina who tried to call for rescue or medical assistance found that their cell phones had gone dead, in part because commercial cellular sys-

tems were not designed to be highly reliable.

This is not surprising. Making it more reliable would boost the costs of cellular service without increasing profits. Nothing can prevent disasters from bringing systems down, but companies can choose to have two hours of power backup or 20 hours. At the moment, money spent on the latter must come out of profits.

If directed by Congress, the Federal Communications Commission could improve this situation. Today carriers compete to cut costs but not to improve dependability. The FCC could produce annual reports for consumers on the dependability and security of cellular systems.

Carriers who invest in dependability then could be rewarded by a corresponding increase in demand for their services.

JON M. PEHA

Pittsburgh

The writer is professor of electrical engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University and associate director of the Center for Wireless and Broadband Networks.

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One of the first needs after any major disaster is good communications, so that the extent of the problems and the help needed can be defined. After Hurricane Katrina, the lack of good communications greatly impeded the disaster response of governments and rescue organizations. In New Orleans and surrounding areas, land-line telephones were out, most cell-phone towers were disabled and electric power had failed.

Many years ago, Kim Kaiser of COMSAT Labs built the first air-transportable satellite terminal with telephone capabilities. It was put into service by the American Red Cross in response to foreign disasters. Since then, mobile satellite terminals have become more compact, more efficient and cheaper.

A large number of cell phones are

in use today in the United States,

and many people can recharge them from cars or trucks. Low-cost hand-cranked radios with weather channels and cell-phone recharging also are being marketed.

The trucks used by the television broadcasters would seem ideal candidates to be adapted to provide satellite links for cell phones and land-line networks. The trucks also would need to carry portable self-erecting cell-phone towers.

The United States lacks a national standard network for emergency communications, so many first responders these days use cell phones. Thus, restoration of cell-phone service via mobile satellite links in trucks could provide immediate communication for rescue and aid workers responding to major disasters anywhere in the United States.

W.J. BILLERBECK

Rockville


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