• United States
Senior Editor

Legislation to improve communications for emergency responders likely to pass

Nov 16, 20052 mins

Hurricane Katrina uncovered many shortcomings in the government’s ability to react to a disaster, but one of the more serious deficiencies was the inability for emergency responders to communicate.

The hurricane knocked out more than 3 million customer telephone lines, 38 emergency call centers and about 1,600 wireless telephone transmission sites when it hit the Gulf Coast Aug. 29, making communication among emergency responders, as well as residents, impossible. Interactive radios could have solved the problem.

For years, emergency responders have argued the case for more radio spectrum so they don’t have to rely on traditional means of communications. But Congress has yet to pass legislation to make room for them on the spectrum, which is already crowded by cell phones, broadcasters and the military. Now is the time to act, says Kevin Martin, chairman of the FCC.

Katrina has boosted the prospects of proposed legislation that would free up some frequencies by giving television stations a hard deadline for transitioning from analog to digital broadcasts.

Currently, broadcasters are required to go digital only in those markets where 85% of homes can receive digital signals. With few, if any, markets meeting that threshold now, the transition could take years as consumers try to find the money to buy either digital TVs or converter boxes for their existing sets.

Then there is the opposition from the cable TV lobby. Although cable TV subscribers would not be affected by a digital transition – cable converts the digital signal for analog sets – cable operators are being asked by TV broadcasters to take on multiple digital channels. The cable operators argue they have limited capacity to carry the extra channels.

But the scenes of death and suffering in New Orleans may create enough political will to overcome inaction and opposition. It is almost a given now that legislation will be passed to force broadcasters to go fully digital. (Committees in the House and Senate were taking action on it at press time.) “The only thing left is for people to get out of the spectrum,” says Mary Greczyn, spokeswoman for the High Tech DTV Coalition, a trade group representing companies such as IBM, Intel and Microsoft that favor faster migration to DTV.

Editor’s Note: The U.S. Senate voted Nov. 3 to set April 7, 2009, as the deadline for U.S. television stations to switch to digital broadcasts and free up analog radio spectrum for wireless broadband and public-safety uses.