The FCC's Independent Panel On Katrina's Impact On Communications: The Chair Reports

Saturday, July 1, 2006 - 01:00

Editor: Ms. Victory, would you tell our readers something about your professional experience?

Victory: I have been practicing communications law for over 17 years. Most of my career has been with Wiley Rein & Fielding, which has the largest communications practice in the country. My time at WRF has given me the opportunity to acquire a broad background in the full range of communications business and regulatory issues. Recently, I spent two years in the Bush administration. As Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information and Administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, I served as the President's advisor on domestic and international telecom policy issues as well as managed the federal government's use of the radio spectrum. I was also involved with internet policy issues.

It was a privilege to serve our country in a small way. It was an incredible opportunity to see firsthand how policy is made and coming to understand all of the considerations that go into a regulator's decisions. It was a unique experience to be the one asked to make policy decisions affecting the government's needs and the public interest.

Editor: How did you come to Wiley Rein & Fielding? What were the things that attracted you to the firm?

Victory: Well, first, my interest in communications law goes back many years. My father was in the broadcasting business and testified before Congress and the FCC on a significant regulatory issue when I was in high school. I found it fascinating to hear about the impact that the government's regulatory decision-making has on business.

At the end of law school, I was looking for a firm with a strong communications practice, and I was drawn to WRF by the breadth and diversity of the work it handled in this area. I was also impressed by the fact that the firm was young and had an entrepreneurial culture. It was not, however, a collection of solo practitioners but rather a group of people who worked hard and as a team. I found this team environment a very attractive one in which to practice law.

Editor: Please tell us about your practice. How has it evolved over the course of your career?

Victory: I am fortunate in being able to do a little of everything related to communications law. My focus is on the telecommunications side, as opposed to mass media, and I handle telephony, wireless, international communications and internet issues for a variety of clients. I have a long history of securing regulatory approvals for communications transactions, and have had the good fortune to be engaged in just about every major telecom deal that comes up. Over time, however, my role has become more that of a strategic advisor, although I continue to do legal research and analysis. Occasionally I am called upon to help draft legislation, which is extremely interesting.

The best part is that the issues are new every day. One can never get bored because the issues, like communications technology, are constantly changing. I find the demands of such a practice very rewarding.

Editor: And would you tell us about your parallel career - or perhaps it is complementary career - speaking and writing on communications policy?

Victory: I view this as a natural extension of my job. In a practice such as this - with new technology emerging constantly and governmental policies to deal with it not far behind - it is essential to stay abreast of developments and to attempt to educate colleagues, clients and the regulators. As a former government official, I think this is the right thing to do if the industry is to move forward, to the benefit of all of us.

Editor: Last November you were named by FCC Chairman Kevin Martin to chair the FCC's Independent Panel Reviewing the Impact of Hurricane Katrina on Communications Networks. For starters, what led to your appointment?

Victory: A number of things converged. I had served as head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, where I had worked on a number of public safety and other communications policy issues. I was thus familiar with many of the issues the Panel would be looking at. In addition, at the firm, I had recently led a team that had assembled a compendium of homeland security and communications proceedings within the federal government. Knowing that the government was trying to enhance homeland security by improving our communications networks, this project was an attempt to gather between two covers all of the relevant federal proceedings for the benefit of both the industry and the government decision-makers. WRF made this compendium publicly available. I think that may have contributed to my reputation as someone knowledgeable about homeland security issues.

Editor: What was the Panel's mandate?

Victory: Our charter required us to study the impact of Hurricane Katrina on all sectors of the telecommunications and media industries, including public safety communications. Then we were to review the sufficiency and effectiveness of the recovery effort with respect to this infrastructure. Finally, we were to make recommendations to the Commission by June 15th of this year regarding ways to improve disaster preparedness, network reliability and communication among first responders.

Editor: Please tell us about the work of the Panel.

Victory: The Panel consisted of 27 people from every sector of the communications industry, including telephony, both licensed and unlicensed wireless, satellite, broadcasting and cable. We also had manufacturer and utilities representatives. About a third of the Panel consisted of members of the public safety community, and that group included law enforcement, firefighters, emergency medical personnel and other first responders. We also had public interest representation on the panel. The majority of our members had been involved in Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts to some extent.

We had five meetings of the full Panel. At most of these sessions, the Panel heard presentations from a variety of experts and interested parties - staff from relevant government agencies, providers of new technology, members of the public safety community and media and telecommunications providers in the affected area. We also attempted to mine publicly available information, such as Congressional and other testimony that had accumulated during the months immediately following Katrina.

Since the Panel was a large group and able to meet only a limited number of times, we convened smaller working groups on particular issues. One focused on resiliency issues and how the various types of networks had performed during the hurricane and early recovery period. One focused on the recovery effort itself and what went wrong. The last one focused on emergency communications, both communications among the public safety community and emergency communications addressed to the public. These groups completed and sorted information for presentation to the full Panel, which then deliberated and developed final conclusions and recommendations.

Editor: Speaking of conclusions and recommendations, I understand the Panel's report has just been issued.

Victory: The conclusions and recommendations are extensive. We observed that the communications systems fared fairly well through Katrina's extreme wind and rain, with the coastal areas suffering the worst damage. However, the unique conditions in the hurricane's aftermath - substantial flooding, widespread, extended power outages, and serious security issues - were responsible for damaging or disrupting communications service to a huge geographic area for a prolonged period of time. Most systems were simply not prepared for this type of situation.

The Panel also observed that, while there were emergency communications programs in place, they were not fully used. For example, the Emergency Alert System was activated by the National Weather Service to get important information out to the public, but state and local governments never used it, such as to provide evacuation information or the location of shelters.

The Panel came up with a large number of recommendations to the FCC. They fall into a couple of categories. First, we made recommendations meant to enable the industry and the public safety community to pre-position themselves for preparedness. This includes the dissemination of a readiness checklist for hurricanes or other disasters. With respect to public safety, we recommended that the FCC conduct an awareness program on non-traditional communications equipment alternatives that may be more resilient or provide greater interoperability. The Panel also recommended streamlining or waiving certain regulatory requirements in the event of disaster.

Second, we looked at improving recovery coordination, both to maximize the use of existing resources and to address the perceived coordination shortcomings. The Panel suggested that there be some national credentialing guidelines for communications workers to allow them easier access into the affected area to make repairs. The Panel also recommended granting communications workers a form of emergency responder status under the Stafford Act, which would give them access to security and other types of support from the government in the event of an emergency. Additionally, the Panel suggested that the FCC work with state agencies to integrate the communications industry into emergency recovery planning. We also urged the FCC to publicize some of the communications priority programs that are in place today, but underutilized.

Third, to improve public safety communications, the Panel recommend the pre-positioning of inventory equipment - a stockpile, essentially - to allow for the quick repair of critical emergency networks. We also recommended steps to facilitate interoperability of public safety systems as well as to harden 911 facilities so that they are more likely to stay online when disaster strikes.

Finally, the Panel also made recommendations for facilitating effective and accurate communications to the public about emergencies. In particular, we tried to take into account the needs of persons with disabilities and non-English speaking Americans.

Editor: Did your work make any differentiation between improving communications for natural disasters and man-made disasters?

Victory: Our charter limited us to the review of Hurricane Katrina. However, our conclusions and recommendations do have broader applicability to other types of disaster. Whenever you are doing planning for a disaster, it is impossible to anticipate every possible eventuality. People in the Gulf seem to have engaged in hurricane planning, but did not plan for the extensive outages of commercial power that ensued. Hurricane Katrina teaches us that it is essential to think through the full panoply of scenarios and to build creativity into preparedness planning. That, I would suggest, extends to all types of disaster, both natural and otherwise.

Editor: Is preparedness largely a governmental function or does it involve all of us?

Victory: It involves everyone. Looking just at the communications industry, most of these networks are owned by private companies. They must play a key role in preparedness and recovery. The government has a major role both as an owner of communications networks itself and as a provider of aid and facilitator of recovery. And the individual citizen? Just ensuring that your cell phone batteries are charged is a step toward preparedness.