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Barnett: Hurricane Warnings for the New Public Safety Communications Network

Natural disasters such as Superstorm Sandy leave devastation in their paths and, often, hard questions. For more than a decade, the vulnerability of the nation’s emergency communications networks has been studied and discussed. Communications outages during the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina were wake-up calls, but actual action on solutions remained sleepy for years. Just about one year ago, Congress created a new federal entity that is supposed to bring the cutting-edge technologies used by commercial networks to an entirely new National Public Safety Broadband Network for use by “first responders” — police, fire and rescue personnel — called FirstNet.

But the recent experience and aftermath of Superstorm Sandy have made it clear that a top-down, one-size-fits-all, Washington, D.C.-led fix will not work unless it includes significant input from state governors, state CIOs and other state officials. FirstNet was the focus of an oversight hearing last week in the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, convened by Chairman Greg Walden, R-Ore.

Superstorm Sandy knocked out power to about 8 million homes and businesses in the Northeast and affected wireless service from Virginia to Massachusetts. The Federal Communications Commission estimated that approximately 25 percent of cellphone towers in that region lost power or were damaged. Telephone and wireless carrier crews worked around the clock to repair the damage and get communications working, but in the face of such a huge storm, many citizens were without normal communications for hours or even days.

But by and large, public safety systems did work. One of the few pieces of good news following the aftermath of Sandy is that operations at local and state 911 emergency call centers in almost all areas remained functioning. Public safety organizations showed that they had learned from past events and have built more robust and resilient networks.

The performance of the public safety communications systems during and after Sandy highlights two principles. First, state and local first responders should always be a focal point of any future planning because they bring deep knowledge of their systems. Second, while commercial telecommunications networks are designed to maintain communications (they have an economic incentive to do so), they do not provide the same level of hardened and robust lines of communication that are essential for public safety communications during a major disaster or debilitating emergency.

So there is a lesson in Superstorm Sandy. As public safety communications move to the Internet Protocol-based, broadband network called FirstNet, this new network must be hardened against weather emergencies, disasters and physical and cyberattacks. Safety and security cost money, and the carriers cannot be expected to provide hardened networks for no compensation. Hardening must be part of the national investment in this national asset, just as we are investing in FirstNet to overcome problems with interoperability that have plagued public safety communications for decades.

However, one of the major concepts for the new NPSBN may transgress those two principles, resulting in a public safety communications system that is less reliable, not more. A commercial-only infrastructure plan floated by FirstNet and the federal agency that oversees FirstNet, the National Telecommunications and Information Agency, does not really incorporate the views of public safety users, governors and state CIOs. Without doubt, commercial carriers have an important role to play, especially in controlling costs, ensuring smooth operations and providing unparalleled expertise, but the intentions for FirstNet were never to create another commercial network.

Superstorm Sandy starkly illustrates the basic difference between what is needed for commercial and public safety networks. Commercial cellphone towers, fiber-optic lines and backup power are not designed to withstand all hazards all the time; if they were, our cellphone service fees would be much more expensive. But public safety communications need to be available especially when storms or earthquakes have devastated other communications systems. How do we justify the additional cost to harden FirstNet?

FirstNet will be expensive already. Experts estimate that costs will total much more than the $7 billion Congress has allocated. But contrast that with the cost of post-Sandy or post-Katrina recovery (and not forgetting the loss of lives). The governor of New York estimates that post-Sandy reconstruction for his state alone is expected to cost $40 billion to $50 billion. It would make sense to invest funds to harden the network to prevent loss of lives and property next time, and there will be a next time. The large expense underscores the necessity of forming partnerships to make joint use of existing commercial infrastructure. As I testified, we must be open to innovative solutions that draw commercial investment and public infrastructure into the network, making it both affordable and robust.

One size will not fit all, and FirstNet has to remain open to listening to the needs of the folks who will use and pay for the services of this new network: governors, state CIOs and public safety officials. The one size that does not fit at all is missing the lesson from Superstorm Sandy.

Jamie Barnett is a retired Navy rear admiral, former chief of the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau of the FCC, and currently a partner at Venable LLP and a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy.

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