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Officials worried about ability to inform public of terrorism

The preparation for another terrorist attack or other wide-scale disaster should include having a plan to ensure that the public has the information it needs to make life-and-death decisions and that the information is disseminated should networks go down, members of an FCC panel said Wednesday, but thus far the plans are in the nascent stages.

Virtually everyone on the agency's Media Security and Reliability Council, including those from the White House Office of Homeland Security, agreed that the United States will be hit by another terrorist attack. But most of the council's working groups will not submit final proposals on protecting the nation's broadcast and multichannel video-program distribution systems for a year.

"Time is not on our side," said William Baker, president of Thirteen/WNET in New York. He urged the council to create a list of interim steps and best practices that will help people get access to the information they will need.

Marianne Burtnett, staff director for the Homeland Security Office, said the office is preparing to launch a Web site that will be a single repository of safety- and emergency-related information. That site should launch in the next couple of months, she said.

However, Burtnett noted, "There is a huge 'digital divide,' so not everyone is going to have access to that information." In tandem with the site, she said the government should sponsor public education projects, particularly in schools, to ensure that people know how to respond to various emergencies.

Media industries such as television, radio, satellite and multichannel distribution are working together to assess the risks and vulnerabilities to each industry. The goal is for the outlets to share information and collaborate to ensure public access to the most reliable information, said Bruce Allan, vice president of Harris Broadcast Communication's broadcast division.

However, industry players have to determine how to overcome issues that prevent media outlets from collaborating, said John Eck, president of broadcast and network operations at NBC. Those issues include the desire for competition between companies, concerns about copyright infringement, and technological, legal and financial barriers.

Another problem the broadcasting industries must overcome is the transition to digital transmissions by television and radio broadcasters. For that reason, the council created the Future Technologies and Digital Solutions task force to determine exactly when the digital transition will be complete and what potential security benefits risks that will pose, Allan said.

For example, multicasting content simultaneously to a group of recipients is possible with digital signals and provides a built-in redundancy for networks, but digital transmissions will have vulnerabilities different from systems based on analog signals.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell told members of the council that the thought of a "horrible nightmare" scenario that could have been prevented should be the motivation to complete their plans as soon as possible.