Power Disruption Issues Emerge as Next FCC Focus, After Recent Major Hurricanes
FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said Thursday more changes to FCC rules are possible, after Hurricanes Fiona and Ian, speaking at the start of a “field hearing” on some lessons learned from those storms. Rosenworcel noted the FCC held a similar hearing after Ida last year (see 2110260067) and later made the wireless industry’s voluntary resiliency cooperative framework mandatory and expanded roaming requirements. The framework was a hot topic at that hearing. The big topic at the Thursday hearing was improving coordination between power companies and communications providers.
Rosenworcel said she “learned a lot” after visiting Puerto Rico and Florida after the recent storms. The biggest lesson was “coordination between communications companies and power companies can make a big difference in disaster recovery,” she said. In Lee County, Florida, emergency management officials told of efforts to “caravan” emergency response in the hardest-hit areas with a power truck, followed by carrier and tower crews.
“When power authorities and companies work in concert, restoration is quicker and more effective,” Rosenworcel said. Within 24 hours, nearly half the downed cellsites in Lee County were back online, she said. In Puerto Rico, the lesson was equally clear, she said: “More coordination between the communications sector and the power sector could help minimize the impact and help speed up recovery. … This is a common issue across disasters.”
Commissioner Brendan Carr also said, based on his visits to areas hit by hurricanes and other disasters, a common thread has been the need for better coordination between power restoration crews and telecom crews. When power crews replace utility poles they have to dig new holes “and in the course of corkscrewing down” they can fracture fiber lines, Carr said. There are other ways of digging holes that can do less damage, he said. “That’s sort of a narrow issue, but it’s part of a broader issue of the need to coordinate,” he said. One sign of progress is how relatively quickly cell service was restored in most areas in Florida after Ian, Carr said.
Additional outage reporting requirements could help, said Commissioner Geoffrey Starks. The FCC may also need to look at whether changes are needed to USF rules “to make sure we’re building hardened networks,” he said: “No good ideas should be off the table.”
Commissioner Nathan Simington said he remains hopeful improvements will continue. “It seems we can look forward to a future where Americans who suffer natural disasters can count on continuous lines of communications with emergency services and their loved ones,” he said: “Right now post-disaster recovery is still very painful and there’s still a lot of work to do.”
Scott Aaronson, Edison Electric Institute senior vice president-security and preparedness, said the power and communications industries already work together. “Given the profound interdependencies that the electric power and communications sectors have, we have found common cause to work in a collaborative way through a number of venues,” including the Cross-Sector Resiliency Forum formed after Hurricane Michael in 2018, he said.
Since Superstorm Sandy, EEI members have invested more than $340 billion to enhance the electric grid to address threats, Aaronson said. The power industry also does exercises at the local, regional and national levels to test response, and communications providers are increasingly taking part in the tests, he said. EEI shares the FCC’s concerns about fiber cuts as part of power restoration, he said.
“Because power companies play a vital role in restoration, it is important that communication providers and power [companies] stay in close alignment to minimize network disruptions that can occur during the restoration process,” said Edwin Narain, AT&T assistant vice president-FirstNet external affairs: “Our team consistently cultivates relationships with our peers in the power industry, and we utilize those relationships during natural disasters.”
Due to roaming agreements, AT&T carried 50 TBs of traffic from other carriers on its network after Ian, which is equivalent to 17.5 billion text messages, Narain said. Throughout the course of the storm, FirstNet responded to 115 requests from agencies that use the network, he said. “Quick recovery wouldn’t have been possible without extensive preplanning … and solid coordination between the government, AT&T/FirstNet and our utility partners,” he said.
Paul Filla, Lee County Department of Public Safety 911 system manager, said preparation is important and helped the county, which was directly in Ian’s path. “You may have heard through the media, or social media, that Lee County 911 experienced an outage,” he said: “I can say unequivocally” the service “did not go down, and zero calls were routed to other counties.” The county turned up 10 trunks before the storm to offer more inbound 911 capacity, and relocated call takers, he said. Daily 911 calling volume increased from 3,400 calls before Ian to 12,000 in the days after, he said.
Better coordination with power companies is critical, said Josh Descant, CEO of REV, a Louisiana ISP. “There are secondary network outages because of inadvertent cuts, both aerial and underground,” he said. “That also puts emergency communications at risk,” he said. “Expect and prepare for supply chain disruptions,” he said. The best response is proactive rather than reactive, Descant said: “Sunny day investments will be increasingly important, but obviously there are significant costs to that.”