A year ago, the onslaught of four consecutive hurricanes on the state of Florida resulted in widespread outages in commercial communications but caused little more than a hiccup in land mobile radio emergency services communications.

This year, a single storm — Hurricane Katrina — hitting the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Mississippi caused unprecedented communications outages that affected both the devices used by first responders and critical infrastructure throughout the disaster-struck region.

Industry officials said the primary difference between Katrina and other hurricanes was the fact that it hit low-lying areas such as New Orleans, which also saw its levees break under the force of the storm. The resultant flooding prevented technicians from gaining access to many sites needing repairs or fuel for backup generators supporting systems after commercial power went out.

“Typically, although a hurricane causes damage, the water recedes; in New Orleans, the water stayed,” said FCC Chairman Kevin Martin. “New Orleans presented unbelievable problems because restoration crews couldn't access the infrastructure [to repair or refuel it].”

Indeed, failure to gain access to facilities prevented M/A-COM technicians from restoring the communications for the city of New Orleans' first responders, said Dave Hutcheson, company spokesman. Although M/A-COM workers were authorized to enter hurricane-ravaged New Orleans, federal officials outside the city rebuffed their requests to get to their facilities and “wouldn't even entertain letting us talk to them,” Hutcheson said.

Once M/A-COM technicians were allowed to access the New Orleans infrastructure, they found the communications outage was attributable to two factors: a microwave dish used for backhaul from a base station site was turned, and a backup power generator on top of a 42-story building failed after its radiator was punctured by a “freak piece of debris” powered by the hurricane winds, Hutcheson said. Both problems could have been rectified relatively quickly had access been provided. Instead, the communications outage lasted for days instead of a few hours, he said.

“The equipment did not fail; the lack of communications in New Orleans was caused by a lack of access,” Hutcheson said. “Certainly, we have no fault with the design of the system. … The system performed as it was designed.”

Access for communications repair crews was not just a problem for M/A-COM. Other vendors and commercial service providers expressed similar frustrations. Even when access was permitted, restoration crews had to be escorted by security to ensure their safety.

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said during a Sept. 22 hearing he believes restoration crews should be credentialed in advance to enable quick access to key infrastructure after disasters and that measures are needed to ensure that they do not have “fear for their lives” as they fix critical equipment.

Flooding not only disrupted access for restoration crews in some areas, it also submerged some communications equipment and generators, causing them to stop working, said Kelly Kirwan, a Motorola vice president who heads the company's emergency-response team. All of Motorola's equipment was located at least 4 feet above the 100-year flood plain in the area, but it was not enough to withstand the floodwaters generated by Katrina and the failure of the levee system.

“You can plan for 99% of the contingencies, but it's the 1% you didn't plan on that always gets you,” Kirwan said.

With many terrestrial systems rendered useless, many entities turned to satellite-based systems immediately after Katrina passed. During the first 72 hours of the disaster, Iridium Satellite said its traffic in the region increased more than 3000%, and the number of subscribers increased more than 500%.

“With all the water and no power immediately after the hurricane hit, it's probably fair to say that satellite phones were the only form of communications in some areas,” said Ted O'Brien, Iridium's vice president of market development. “And with Iridium, there's no dependence on local infrastructure.”

Satellite service provider Hughes Network Systems said it also received additional interest, delivering more than 70 terminals to the area. Although generally a data-service provider, Hughes' high-speed connections also allow voice-over-IP links with some latency, said Mike Cook, senior vice president at Hughes.

“It works well, and when you don't have anything else, it's absolutely fabulous,” Cook said.

In addition to proven technologies, some next-generation technologies were deployed in Katrina's aftermath in an effort to help the recovery effort. The FCC granted special temporary authority (STA) for Time Domain to use its ultrawideband imaging system to help law enforcement find hurricane victims trapped in buildings and debris, Martin said. A similar STA let Intel send equipment to establish a WiMAX network to provide high-speed Internet connectivity to an evacuee camp in San Antonio.

Also notable was the deployment of Motorola's 700 MHz radio systems for the relief effort. In many parts of the country, these frequencies are unavailable because UHF television broadcasters use them to transmit analog signals, but the spectrum is unused in the Gulf Coast region hit by Katrina.

But this fact did little to quell the debate on Capitol Hill regarding the completion of the digital-television transition that would require broadcasters to clear the 700 MHz band on a date certain, probably Jan. 1, 2009.

Public-safety officials cited Katrina as yet another example of the need for emergency personnel to have access to more spectrum to enable interoperable communications. Meanwhile, although Katrina caused about 100 broadcasters in the region to go off the air, the handful of stations that continued to operate were noted during an FCC meeting conducted in Atlanta last month.

Fred Young, vice president of news for Hearst-Argyle, said those television broadcasters' efforts to deliver updated information largely would have been wasted if those stations only could transmit digital signals that cannot be received by most portable TVs.

“I'm concerned about those who advocate premature return of analog TV spectrum,” Young testified before the FCC.

Public-safety officials disagreed.

“That's a bad argument. … The point is, if you don't have a television or radio, [whether broadcasters transmit analog or digital signals] really doesn't matter, does it?” asked Harlin McEwen, chairman of the International Association of Chiefs of Police's communications and technology committee. “To say that they're more important than [first responders] being able to talk with each other is nonsense. They're both important.”

McEwen said he believes the circumstances surrounding Katrina will be a catalyst for Congress to set a firm date — a notion also supported by Yucel Ors, director of legislative affairs for the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials.

“It seems to be turning positively toward public safety,” said Ors, who noted that House Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) was expected to introduce 700 MHz legislation soon after press time.

Wireless analyst Andrew Seybold said he also believes the aftermath of Katrina should benefit public safety but cautioned that the influence of the powerful National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) lobby should not be dismissed.

“I don't buy [the broadcasters'] argument. … The people in the affected areas couldn't see anything because they didn't have any AC power,” Seybold said, also noting that 80% televisions are connected to cable or satellite services that can receive digital signals.

“But the NAB has lots of money and lots of lobbyists. The shame is … that the [wireless] industry has no common voice — there's CTIA, there's APCO, there's the fire chiefs, there's the SMR groups and there's other groups. There's no wireless lobby, per se, so the NAB has a louder voice than all of the other agencies combined.”