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Open Letter to FCC Chairman Martin on Preparing for the Next Disaster

In the days after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the surrounding area, the news showed the agony of friends and families trying to reach evacuees and of families desperately seeking lost members from shelter to shelter.

Stuart Henshall at Skype Journal had a brilliant idea for making these people reachable:  have their drowned numbers terminate in voice mail.  Those looking for family members generally know their phone numbers.  Numbers are much more precise than names in the chaos of a disaster.  There is no longer any technical reason why a NUMBER has to stay associated with a physical LINE when the line is inoperable.

I blogged in support of Stuart’s idea as did many others.  VoIP providers offered free mailboxes and accounts.  But nothing happened.  It was weeks before some families were reunited.  Other important relief efforts were hampered by the desperate searches.  Fear of being unreachable may well discourage people who should evacuate from actually going.

It was probably naïve to expect fast action on this idea in the middle of a disaster.  But we know for sure that there will be another manmade or natural disaster before long.  Hurricane season comes again to the Atlantic in just nine months.  There is no excuse for not learning the lessons of Katrina and applying them.

I’ve sent the following open letter to Chairman Kevin Martin of the Federal Communications Commission urging action.  If you agree – hell, even if you disagree, please make your own view known.  CCing Congressman and Senators as I did doesn’t hurt either.  For those who’d prefer to act locally, these same requirements could probably be imposed by local Public Service Boards.

From: Tom Evslin
Sent: Thursday, November 10, 2005 1:53 PM
To: '[email protected]'
Cc: '[email protected]'; '[email protected]'; '[email protected]'
Subject: Disaster Preparedness

The Honorable Kevin Martin

Chairman

Federal Communications Commission

Via email

Dear Chairman Martin:

The Federal Communications Commission can and should begin proceedings now to mitigate the effect of telephone outages in the next natural or manmade disaster.  The suffering of displaced family members desperately seeking each other in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina need never be repeated.  Emergency relief workers need not waste time searching homes whose residents have safely evacuated.  Shelter operators and volunteers can be freed from much of the task of locating missing family members so that they can concentrate on other vital aspects of relief.  Fear of being unreachable need not discourage evacuation.

Regulatory action is required to assure that calls to out-of-service landline phones are immediately rerouted.

After a disaster, people with mobile phones are not out of touch for long.  Those seeking them can either reach them directly or, in most cases, leave voice mail.  Many of the displaced change the announcement on their voice mail to say that they are safe.  Those with Internet (VoIP) phone are also able to reestablish communication maintaining their own phone number as soon as they can find an IP connection and, in most cases, can access their voice mail and leave an informative announcement from any phone.

But many of those who were displaced by Katrina could be reached only through a landline phone.  Friends and relatives from around the country had no way to reach them once the people were evacuated and/or their landlines became inoperable.  Even though the Red Cross operates a bulletin board for reuniting people and many other volunteer boards sprung up after Katrina, names are a notoriously unreliable way to locate people; phone numbers are much more reliable.

All local phone companies have access to the technology needed to provide voice mail and call forwarding.  Unaccountably, BellSouth did not provide these service to those displaced by Katrina.  The FCC did act with commendable speed to loosen the rules for number portability but this was not enough to assure that people’s phone NUMBERS remained usable even when their phone LINES were under water. 

There is a clear need for regulation to assure that providers of landline service provide voice mail accessible by a toll free number and/or call forwarding to anyone whose primary landline phone is inoperable for any reason for more than twelve hours.  Moreover, providers of primary landlines should be required to notify customers in advance of these facilities, assign PINs to them for secure control of call forwarding and voice mail, and distribute instructions for the use of these services.

This problem is much more urgent than 911 access from VoIP phones.  There are hundreds of times as many people dependent on landline phones for reachability than there are users of VoIP.  Currently, most users of VoIP service, which requires broadband access, are relatively affluent and have multiple means of communication including mobile phones.  As we saw in New Orleans, the poor are NOT reachable once their landline numbers cease to operate.

However, the FCC may want to consider using the same sanction against landline providers who do not provide basic reachability service as it has taken against VoIP operators who do not provide E911 access: those phone companies should be told that the FCC does not expect them to market to new subscribers in areas where they cannot provide this basic level of service.  These sanctions are especially appropriate since there is much less competition between landline providers than there is between VoIP providers; consumers have very little choice in basic landline service.

If, for some reason, the FCC believes that it does not have the statutory authority to compel this basic emergency service, then the FCC should take the lead in proposing the necessary enabling legislation.

Clearly proper notice is required and hearings must be held.  Starting this process now will assure that the proper regulatory steps can be taken and that carriers have time to comply before next hurricane season leads to another unnecessary breakdown in communication.

Yours truly,

Tom Evslin

CC:       Senator Frank Lautenberg

            Senator Jon Corzine

            Representative Chris Smith

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