Martin Misses an Opportunity

If you’re going to shake up the FCC’s open meeting by focusing on Katrina and moving to Bell South’s emergency HQ, why couldn’t Martin have focused a little bit on the future? Rather than looking at the way in which technology changed relief, Martin summoned the usual industry suspects who, unsurprisingly, explained to the FCC why they need regulatory goodies to better serve the public. Perhaps the Chairman can be persuaded to hold another meeting or forum a month or two down the road to look at where we should go, not where we’ve been.

On the whole, I have high praise for the FCC and its response to Katrina. The agency mobilized quickly and worked through weekends to provide necessary regulatory permission and regulatory waivers. The FCC also did its best to help facilitate deployment of services with FEMA and Red Cross. Ken Moran, Kenneth Carter, and FCC Chief of Staff Dan Gonzales deserve high marks for their efforts, as do Peter Doyle and the folks in the Audio Division of the Media Bureau, and Catherine Bohigian in the Chairman’s office.

But last week’s FCC open meeting was something of a disappointment. This is the second time Martin has converted the usually staid ritual of an open Commission meeting, where everything is decided in advance and the dance plays out in the FCC’s hearing room, into something else. Several months ago, he broke precedent by inviting witnesses to testify on whether to require voice over IP services to provide 911 service and then calling an immediate vote on the item. This time, he moved the FCC down to Bell South’s Emergency Control Center in Atlanta. While done “for the convenience of those testifying,” it also makes quite effective political theater. Martin is no slouch when it comes to moving his goals forward.

So I was disappointed to see the witness list. Of course one expects to see Bell South and the cellular phone industry folks. The Public Safety representative who also happens to be from Shrevesport LA is also an obvious pick. A salute for including a Communications Workers of America representative as separate from the Bell South representative, giving organized labor a chance to speak for itself. And a networks rep is also clearly called for here, as was a satellite phone company rep.

But why three representatives from major media conglomerates? Of course have the witness from the local AM station. But why Clear Channel, Belo (which is a large owner of television stations and newspapers based in TX) and Hearst-Argyle (large group owner with cross-ownership interests)? And where are the folks using unlicensed spectrum, or even their vendors? Surely the ability to instantly deploy infrastructure — a first we’ve seen in national natural disaster recovery — is worthy of testimony at the FCC. A representative from the National Association of Broadcasters could have praised consolidation and cross-ownership, pointed to the essential news coverage, and bragged about how much money got raised by broadcasters without calling THREE industry reps to testify.

And, moving beyond infrastructure, what about the impact of the internet on the crisis generally? The dozens of new websites that sprang up almost immediately, organized by citizens outside the traditional help networks, to provide information and services to evacuees? This is truly a revolution in disaster relief, and should have massive implications for our braodband deployment strategies. But the FCC had nothing about it.

Finally, I should put in a plug for my LPFM friends. In addition to the important project at the Astrodome, the LPFM community worked their local stations and provided needed radio infrastructure as much as, if not more than, their full power siblings.

The cynical will no doubt say this is a ploy by Martin to boost deregulation. Give the big media boys the stage to trumpet their virtues and shut out the common citizens using LPFM and new technologies to save lives. But I don’t think that’s it. For one thing, Ken Moran’s testimony extensively describes the WISP effort and thanks the folks at for their coordination efforts. Moran also mentioned the LPFM stations authorized for the Astrodome and for Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. Had Martin intended to render these efforts invisible, they would never have shown up in testimony.

No, what I think is going on here is the sadly more mundane problem of conventional thinking. In the overall scheme of things, the number of folks connected by the WISPs and community wireless folks is small compared to the number of lines restored by Bell South. The work done by LPFMs is considered nice and the FCC was happy to make it possible, but how (in their minds) can it compare to the massive resources that Clear Channel and Belo bring to bear? And as for the broader internet revolution in services — how can it compare to national network infrastructure or the efforts of the Red Cross?

All perfectly logical, until you start thinking about what it could mean to our country to have an army of infrastructure volunteers deployed everywhere ready to mobilize. Or you think about how small communities of trained radio technicians and broadcasters can rush in and recreate infrastructure while full-power stations remain levelled, or how these communities can strategically place temporary microradio stations wherever needed. Want to do better next time? Want to see what promises the future holds for rapid, decentralized response? We could have volunteers scattered around the country like white blood cells and clotting factor, rushing into a wound and setting up a critical first line of defense while the “big guns” mobilize. We can capture the spirit of volunteerism and community that springs up in this country in the wake of every national disaster or tragedy, and then is ruthelessly supressed by huge, centrally coordinated professional operations that see no role for people beyond writing checks and giving blood.

Sadly, Martin missed the chance. The hearing focused on the past, not the future. It looked at where we’ve been, not where we could go and how to get there.

Of course, nothing stops the FCC from looking at this issue again. If not at an open meeting, then at some forum or other public meeting. Congress has the opportunity as well, as do the other federal agencies that will study what we’ve discovered about ourselves and disaster relief. And a few far sighted folks, such as former FCC Chair Reed Hunt, have already started asking why cities and towns everywhere don’t have municipal wireless networks as part of their crisis response planing.

We’ll get there. I just wish it were a bit easier.

stay tuned . . . .

One Comment

  1. The FCC et al has missed the chance many times over since 9/11. Too busy worrying about their own political and private sector after life to think about the publics future.

Comments are closed