By Jasmin Melvin
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. regulators are looking for ways to accelerate the use of drones and other aerial technologies to restore communications after disasters like 2005's Hurricane Katrina, which knocked out phone service for more than 3 million people.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski said this technology would have been remarkably useful after Hurricane Katrina, which also crippled 38 emergency call centers in the New Orleans area.
The FCC on Thursday voted 5-0 to explore how airborne technologies, already used by the U.S. military, could bring temporary communications systems to disaster-struck areas.
"If you imagine a cell tower that's floating or flying in the sky, that's what this technology is...," Genachowski told the agency's monthly open meeting.
Restoring communications in the first 72 hours after a disaster can save lives, protect property and expedite the recovery process, the FCC said.
The agency is seeking comment on what technologies are already in use and what is being developed, and on whether the technologies can work across a common network accessible by all agencies, first responders and the public.
The agency is also concerned about the ability to prioritize service on and access to these temporary networks if there are limits on the amount of traffic the systems can handle.
"Much, much more needs to be done to ready this technology for primetime," said newly sworn in Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel who also cautioned against interference with the national airspace system and existing telecoms networks.
The FCC's notice also asks questions about the cost of deploying aerial networks, coordinating among multiple agencies and issues with deployments near Canada and Mexico.
The FCC also voted on Thursday to set aside a chunk of airwaves for connecting wireless medical devices to allow for more convenient and cost-effective health monitoring.
Allocating spectrum for so-called Medical Body Area Networks (MBANs) is intended to allow doctors to monitor a patient's vital signs at home or in the hospital via low-cost wearable sensors.
(Reporting By Jasmin Melvin; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)