FCC considering plan to launch floating cell towers

Molly Wood Jun 8, 2012

Hurricane season is right around the corner and the Federal Communications Commission is studying a plan to deploy emergency phone equipment in the air. Using drone planes, weather balloons and blimps, the FCC wants to effectively create floating cell phone towers. That way people could call to get rescued, call to get help, aid workers could coordinate efforts.

When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, people in Biloxi, Miss., found it was hard to call for help or check on relatives when the phone service was unreliable.

The Federal Communications Commission has studied natural disasters and what happens to communications when disasters occur. Jennifer Manner is with the FCC Public Safety & Homeland Security Bureau. She says, “What we found is during the first 72 hours after a major disaster such as a hurricane, the communications devices that public safety and consumers use on a day-to-day basis like your cell phone may not be available because the land-based communications facilities may be downed.”

If it works, the plan could save lives. Manner is hopeful that it will work, although she says there’s a lot still to be done. “It’s been used overseas by the U.S. military, but there’s never been a comprehensive examination by the FCC on whether this technology should be enabled and if so, how.”

One of the challenges is how the people launching these things get power. John Villasenor is a professor of electrical engineering at UCLA and a fellow at The Brookings Institution. He says, “If a real disaster strikes, and the traffic lights are out and the gas stations can’t pump gas cause the electricity is out and these people can’t physically get to the locations to launch these things, then obviously the system would break down, so clearly, you would want to do a lot of testing.”

Power could be an issue for people on the ground seeking help as well. “Now, the problem, of course, is your mobile phone wouldn’t necessarily hold a charge if you tried to use it for a longer time, and also, of course, these systems wouldn’t have nearly the capacity of our current systems, so if everybody is trying to get on them, then obviously there would be a capacity problem, so I think there are some challenges, but it still is a good thing they’re pursuing it. Makes sense to look at it.”


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