FCC proposes telecom help in areas hit by Katrina

The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission has proposed giving about $211 million to help low-income residents, health care providers, relief agencies, schools, libraries and telecommunications providers in the areas affected by Hurricane Katrina.

According to an FCC press release, the commission will also create a blue-ribbon panel of experts from the public safety and communications industries to review the impact of the hurricane and propose ways to improve disaster preparedness, network reliability and public safety operations.

Chairman Kevin Martin said Sept. 15 that the FCC will provide funding for the areas hit by the hurricane through four Universal Service Programs. Through its program for low-income consumers, the FCC will provide support for wireless handsets and a package of 300 free minutes for evacuees and for those in the area without telephone service. The program will also help pay to reconnect residents to the telecom network during rebuilding. The commission estimates that those initiatives will cost about $51 million.

Through the FCC’s program for rural health care providers, public and nonprofit health care organizations providing services to victims in the region can apply for discounts on advanced services used with telemedicine applications. The FCC estimates about $28 million in support.

In addition, schools and libraries in the affected region can resubmit requests for 2005 and 2006 E-rate funds, which could provide $132 million in support. The program gives schools and libraries discounts of 20 percent to 90 percent for Internet access, telecom infrastructure and internal connections. The FCC oversees the program, and a nonprofit group called the Universal Service Administrative Co. administers it.

Finally, the FCC will waive or modify rules to allow BellSouth to prioritize Universal Service Fund money to help it rebuild wire centers and facilities damaged by the hurricane.

In addition to the blue-ribbon panel, Martin also proposed creating a new Public Safety/Homeland Security Bureau to coordinate public safety, national security and disaster management activities within the FCC. Those activities are currently scattered across multiple FCC bureaus. The new bureau would develop policies and rules related to public safety and priority emergency communications, continuity of government operations, disaster management coordination, and network reliability and interoperability, among other issues.

During an FCC Open Commission meeting in Atlanta Sept. 15, Willis Carter, chief of communications for the Shreveport, La., Fire Department, testified that he visited four parishes affected by the hurricane and saw a lack of coordinated command and control, no direct support for communication centers and personnel, and an inability to communicate.

“Today, most of the area’s emergency communications are operating at least in a limited capacity,” said Carter, who is also first vice president of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International. “However, there is still much to be done to restore full communications capabilities, which in some cases will require the rebuilding of total networks.”

He said governments must take several steps to prepare for future disasters. They include allocating funding to build and maintain public safety communications networks to “withstand worst-case scenarios,” setting up redundant sites to quickly restore 911 service, reserving interoperable radio spectrum for supplemental and replacement radio systems during a disaster, and giving adequate funding and radio spectrum to operate interoperable radio communication systems with state-of-the art capabilities.

“Just as Sept. 11, 2001, helped to focus the nation on the communications issues facing our first responders,” Carter said in his testimony, “Hurricane Katrina has revealed that much still needs to be accomplished to provide public safety personnel with the communications tools they need to protect the safety of life and property.”

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