FCC Outlines Vision for Deployable Aerial Communications Architecture

Hurricane Irene caused widespread power outages that knocked out communications. Cell phone sites have emergency power, but after a period of time, backup batteries and generators began to fail. A catastrophic earthquake on the New Madrid Seismic Zone has the potential to cause damage over eight states. The FCC recognized that during the critical 72 hours after a disaster strikes it could be difficult to maintain critical public safety communications.

Last week the FCC issued a staff white paper The Role of Deployable Aerial Communications Architecture (DACA) in Emergency Communications and Recommended Next Step discussing the potential of airborne repeaters and other communications gear to replace or supplement damaged terrestrial communications system. The DACA vision involves deploying an aerial communications system within 18 hours and using it to temporarily restore critical communications, including broadband, for a period of 72 to 96 hours.

What about broadcasting? The White Paper says the aerial capability would be useful where the power grid may be inoperable for 5 to 7 days. In that period of time, it says backup power supplies would be depleted, resulting in almost complete failure of not only broadcast and cable transmissions, but landline, cellular, land mobile radio and Wi-Fi and Internet services. If bridges or access roads are impassable, fuel won’t be able to get to the generators at these facilities. The White Paper says, “If DACA systems were available, users on the ground could continue to rely on their day-to-day communications devices in a transparent manner.” It notes that the military “has employed aerial platforms using piloted aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and tethered or untethered balloons for localized communications and to provide enhanced coverage areas and extend the battle space.”

While the White Paper only mentioned broadcasting as one of the services that would fail in an extended disaster recovery and not one the DACA would restore, the military and other government agencies have found aerial platforms useful for broadcasting – TV Marti is one, if not the best, example. The White Paper does not mention Amateur Radio communications, although news this week said India is revisiting ham radio’s contribution to post-disaster communications.

In the White Paper, the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau recognized the many issues that have to be addressed before DACA can be implemented. Interference to remaining terrestrial communications, spectrum coordination and authorization requirements will be addressed in a future FCC Notice of Inquiry. The FCC will host a workshop on deployable aerial communications architecture solutions and outstanding issues by the end of the year. Findings will be shared with FEMA, the FAA and other federal partners to initiate discussions regarding next steps for possible pilot programs. Because aerial communications systems could have international ramifications when operated near borders, the PSHSB will work with the State Department and other federal agencies to determine appropriate next steps.

I question the FCC’s assumption that broadcasting services would cease five to seven days after a major disaster. Looking at past disasters, including major hurricanes, power outages and tornadoes, while many stations were knocked off the air, others found the resources to continue broadcasting. Unlike cell phone or other distributed communications systems that require a large infrastructure to support them, most broadcasters can stay on the air with one (the transmitter site) or two (if the studio is separate) sites and little additional infrastructure. Broadcasters also have a history of working together to support each other in disasters. It isn’t unusual for TV audio with emergency news and information to be rebroadcast on radio stations, for example.