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Experts consider how to address communications challenges ahead of next Sandy

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The Federal Communications Commission today held its first field hearings with local telecommunications executives, legislators, consumer advocates and academic experts to address vulnerabilities in the region's wired and wireless infrastructure that left millions of people unable to make calls in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said.

"This unprecedented storm has revealed new challenges that will require a national dialogue around ideas and actions to ensure the resilience of communications networks," Genachowski said in a statement. "As our thoughts and sympathies remain with those who have suffered loss and damage as a result of superstorm Sandy, I urge all stakeholders to engage constructively in the period ahead."

At a morning session held at the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Customs House, in New York, Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula (D-Somerset) — whose bill to add long-term energy capacity and infrastructure planning into the energy master plan is sitting in the state Assembly — said communications companies should consider sharing service facilities throughout restoration efforts to create more redundancy in their networks, as Genachowski noted the hurricane knocked out a quarter of the cell towers in an area that spread across 10 states.

"When they think about cell tower siting, they shouldn't be building so many cell towers all over the place, but co-locating antennas instead," Chivukula said at the hearing. "If disaster recovery is taking place, they should allow for more collaboration to figure out how to create redundancy, which I think would help a lot."

In prepared testimony, U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-Cliffside Park) said "most 911 call centers were fully operational during Sandy, and where they weren't, most calls were re-routed to reach centers with power. However, 'most calls' is not good enough."

"Although our networks adjusted well considering the circumstances, as we work to improve our communications networks, we must strive for an emergency response infrastructure with zero gaps — one that leaves no one behind," Lautenberg said.

Preparing for a 4 p.m. panel discussion centered on new ideas to improve communications services, David Dodd, chief information officer at Stevens Institute of Technology, in Hoboken — which is hosting the FCC's afternoon session today from 2 to 5 — said he will emphasize the importance of migrating to global cloud-based servers ahead of storms.

"One of the things learned from superstorm Sandy was that not only direct physical locations can be taken offline, but also backup data center locations within the region or state or even 1,100 miles away can be impacted," Dodd said. "By having a virtual presence of servers online that's provided by different partners, we run our financial management system in the cloud through a company in Arizona that uses Amazon cloud services, which effectively provides a global backup capability."

To achieve broader cloud capabilities, Dodd said Stevens' technology division formed a partnership with HP and Cisco Systems Inc. on a proof-of-concept research project, which he said was launched prior to the storm — though "if anything, Sandy affirmed to us this was a good move to make."

"One of the things we need to continue to do is to reassess capabilities regarding business continuity, and an extraordinary event like Sandy emphasizes how critical it is to reassess what we know," Dodd said.

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