FCC on the Job During Sandy: DIRS and Emergency Reporting

As someone residing near Sandy’s Shermanesqe march through NJ, I am glad that TvB’s offices were spared the worst. One lesson many of us learned is that wireless service tends not be as disrupted as communications based on wires strung across wooden poles. Though if you lived in lower Manhattan you may have experienced just the opposite.

As Comcast users, we lost service on Tuesday and saw somewhat spotty connectivity the rest of the week. We were forced to link our laptops to our Droids, using them as wireless modems. Silly me: I was suckered into signing up for Verizon’s $20 per month tethering tithe. Then I learned about this carrier’s C block rule violation and the $1.25 million fine the FCC levied on them for forcing app stores to pull tethering apps from their shelves.

So don’t pay the fee, and try out Easy Tether from Google Play. A longer installation process than the Verizon variant, but worth the effort.

Anyway … on Tuesday, the FCC informed the public that 25% of cell phone towers in the affected areas were down. In Manhattan below 14th Street, wireless service was even more precarious. People I managed to contact in NYC told me they were lucky to achieve any kind of voice-based connection. Emails and SMS were far more likely to get though. I suspect traditional self-powered analog land lines may have fared better, but I’m willing to be proven wrong.

Wireless service has since improved according to the FCC. On Friday they announced that just 15% of cell towers were out in the 146 affected counties. And cable coverage was severed in 17% of those counties.

So how is the FCC figuring all this out about the carriers’ cell towers and cabling conditions? Their Disaster Information Reporting System or DIRS was activated before the storm. The “System” is actually a web app in which wired and wireless carriers–voluntarily, by the way– enter the status of their switches and current 911 service capabilities.

It’s a great idea, and in exchange for providing these updates, carriers get FCC help in securing generators and fuel–not an inconsiderable benefit during a crisis, especially one in which you see long lines of cars radiating from the few functioning gas stations.

In the FCC spirit of just revealing bits and pieces from their trove of carrier data, the full DIRS information collected for Sandy is under lock and key for “national security” reasons.

So don’t expect to see a post-storm FCC open gov initiative with cool interactive maps showing the changing shape of the storm-ravaged coverage zones. We’ll just have to settle for press releases sprinkled with a few stats.