US Considering Next-Gen Technologies in Hurricanes’ Wake

A number of government-led plans are under consideration to rebuild the telecommunications infrastructure in the Gulf Coast, which was badly damaged by Hurricanes Rita and Katrina — and experts tell TechNewsWorld that technologies from mesh networks to smart radios are likely to be deployed there.

The United States needs a more “comprehensive” emergency system to redirect emergency calls during crises that disable public-safety dispatch centers, and mobile mesh networks, among other technologies, might be the key, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin said.

Mesh Networks, Smart Radios

Martin said that first responders need mobile wireless communications systems that they can rapidly employ. The suggested technologies include smart radios, which consumers can easily tune to different frequencies and formats.

Martin last week testified in front of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which is holding hearings on communicating during disasters.

Last week, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) debuted legislation that would give US$3.3 billion in grants to state and local agencies to build interoperable communications systems over the next five years.

The Assure Emergency and Interoperable Communications for First Responders Act of 2005, if passed by the Congress, will also establish a new Homeland Security Department research program to assess technological capabilities and identify emerging ones. This will help create a national framework that promotes interoperability, as well as efficient spectrum use and information sharing.

The legislation requires the department to develop “at least two pilot projects” that would evaluate strategies and technologies for providing and maintaining emergency communications when there is a substantial loss of ordinary telecommunications infrastructure and a sustained loss of electricity, as Louisiana and Mississippi experienced after Katrina came ashore.

The hurricane destroyed most of the communications infrastructure in the Gulf Coast region, leaving many emergency responders unable to talk with one another and coordinate rescue activities.

Sen. Lieberman said emergency officials were reduced to using runners to communicate between command centers and first responders in the field, which some observers have likened to Third World situations, or those of the ancient world. “But certainly between 490 B.C. and the 21st century, we’ve made greater advancement in communications technologies than better running shoes,” the Senator, and former vice presidential nominee for the Democratic Party, said.

Telecoms Helping Too

Telecom companies continue to help with the rebuilding effort — even on a pro-bono basis.

One firm, Pronto Networks, last week announced it is donating its managed services for converged networks to enable broadband wireless connectivity in the New Orleans downtown and airport areas, as well as Biloxi, Miss., and Baton Rouge, La., in support of disaster relief efforts.

The company is working with partners Intel, MCI’s SkyTel and Tropos Networks to enable free WiFi service to Federal Emergency Management Agency workers, local government employees and citizens at these locations.

The wireless network — which will have broadband capacity — will furnish thousands of hurricane survivors with the ability to communicate with relatives, contact social services and access information critical to receiving emergency fund distributions and for relocation.

“The widespread damage caused by Hurricane Katrina is simply devastating,” said Jasbir Singh, president and CEO of Pronto Networks.

SkyTel, a subsidiary of MCI, is providing the on-site installation, technical assistance and 24×7 network monitoring to ensure network availability, while Intel is contributing Tropos mesh routers for coverage in these areas. Pronto, in the meantime, is providing the back-office operational support, including customer portal customization, quality of service controls and remote network management, via its managed services operation based in San Jose, Calif. Pronto’s Managed Services runs on its OSS platform for converged services.

“Communication has been a major challenge in the disaster recovery efforts,” said Bruce Deer, President of SkyTel. Fortunately, the network in these hard-hit areas is expected to be fully operational soon.

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