Even as we on the East Coast are still cleaning up from the effects of Hurricane Irene and from an earth-moving experience of a rare earthquake, pundits have not been shy in expressing opinions about the use (mostly about the benefits) of social media tools like Facebook and Twitter to get information out to affected audiences. Federal officials know a political opportunity when they see one, and jumping on the “everyone can be a news source” mantra has led to some very interesting activity.
For example, the FCC has launched an inquiry into whether phone calls to 911 emergency response agencies were affected by congestion on the cellular phone communications networks. While the FCC’s inquiry is unlikely to reveal anything new or unexpected, it could add impetus to the effort to implement an e-911 capability and to add new data on why the FCC’s action on releasing “D Block” spectrum should proceed.
One area where the FCC has clear jurisdiction, but has not expressed any interest (yet), is whether network congestion also occurs because of the practice by many local television stations, national cable systems and internet-based social networks of asking for individuals with video/picture-enabled cell phones to send them photographs of what they see.
These video transmissions, I am reliably told by network engineers, eat up considerably more bandwidth than voice or text messages. While it is clear that smart phones give TV news outlets the ability to have thousands of news-gatherers provide information they could not otherwise get – at almost no cost to the broadcast news station – I wonder whether some of the video submissions aren’t driven by the “ego of the submitter” rather than adding new information not otherwise attainable?
The inquiry the FCC could do should not impinge on any First Amendment rights. I would hope that the inquiry would focus on spectrum usage and the impact of social media and individual videographers on the existing and planned networks. This inquiry could lead to a “best practices” report and a set of recommendations for news outlets AND their sources as they seek to gather, edit, and disseminate important information. To the best of my knowledge, no such study exists, or at least in the non-academic literature.
Congressional committees are also expected to hold oversight hearings on the impact of individual communications devices and emergency communications requirements. These hearing will likely produce great theatre and lots of technology demonstrations. Whether they will help inform policy making and public practices is an open question.
Unless we somehow change the laws of physics, we do not have the ability to create more spectrum. Therefore, we must find more efficient ways to use what we have. Educating the public about what they should and shouldn’t do and how best to do it when the network systems are likely to clog up may help us prevent more serious problems than the ones we experienced over the past week. I hope these inquiries are conducted quickly and that the results are widely distributed.
It is a question of bandwidth, in every sense of that word.