FCC proposes telecom help in areas hit by Katrina

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

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

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

Through the commission's Rural Health Care program, public and non-profit health care providers providing services to victims in the areas can apply for discounts for advanced services used for telemedicine applications. The FCC estimates about $28 million in support for this program.

Through the E-rate program, schools and libraries in the affected region can re-submit requests for 2005 and 2006 E-rate funds, which could provide $132 million in support. The program provides schools and libraries with discounts of 20 percent to 90 percent for Internet access and telecommunications infrastructure and for internal connections. While the FCC oversees the program, a non-profit group called the Universal Service Administrative Company administers it.

Lastly, the FCC will waive or modify rules to allow BellSouth to prioritize universal service funds 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 commission. Those activities are currently scattered through 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 last Thursday, Willis Carter, chief of communications with the Shreveport Fire Department in Shreveport, La., testified that he visited four parishes affected by the hurricane and saw a lack of coordinated incident command and control, no direct support for communications centers and personnel and inability to communicate in each.

'Today, most of the area's emergency communications are operating at least in a limited capacity,' 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 there are several steps governments must do in future disasters. They include ensuring funding is available to ensure public safety communications networks are built and maintained to 'withstand worse-case scenarios,' providing 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 communications systems with state-of-the art capabilities.

'Mr. Chairman, just as September 11th, 2001 helped to focus the nation on the communications issues facing our first responders, 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,' he said in his testimony.

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