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If You Liked FEMA, You’ll Love BellSouth

BellSouth doesn’t want to be required to provide voicemail and/or call forwarding to its customers in the next disaster. Disappointing but not surprising.  Apparently they think the steps they took after Katrina were adequate.  Apparently they learned nothing from the tragedies of their customers who were cut off from normal communication, from the agonies of families who couldn’t reunite, from the precious time wasted and lives risked by rescue workers looking for people who had safely evacuated but were missing because they were unreachable.

BellSouth’s attorneys responded to the petition that Jeff Pulver and I filed with the FCC in an attempt to avoid a rerun of last fall during the next disaster.  They’re against it.  OK, let’s take a look at their reasons.

“It is nonsensical to impose additional requirements on communications providers following a disaster or other catastrophic event,” say said attorneys.  Right.  That’s why the petition asks that they be required to prepare NOW, not wait for the next disaster. They weren’t adequately prepared last time; they need to be next time.  If we wait for the next disaster, it’ll be too late again.

They go on to argue that implementing voice mail during an emergency would interfere with the work of the people who are working mightily to restore service.  Two things wrong with this argument but let me stop for a minute to say I have nothing but respect for the linesmen and other field workers – including those from BellSouth – who work heroically after every emergency.  The problem is at headquarters, not out on the streets.

Of course, they should implement emergency voice mail now, not during a catastrophe – then just turn it on in an emergency for those who weren’t wealthy enough to subscribe to this “premium” service. But they’re missing another point: restoring service to areas which are under evacuation orders and homes that are under water doesn’t help reconnect the PEOPLE who are in shelters somewhere else.  These people won’t be reachable on their old phone lines – some still aren’t. 

The whole point of the petition is to make them reachable on their old phone NUMBERS – the numbers that their family and friends know.  People who had mobile phones, VoIP, or did have voicemail accounts were reachable even though they weren’t in their homes.  But those who were too poor to have these amenities were unreachable.  This doesn’t have to happen again. 

Much of the failure of emergency services after Katrina was because most aid providers – and most people – assume that emergencies are very short-lived and people will come home again after a week.  Usually true.  Not in Katrina.  Not in the most serious of disasters.  Modern technology – actually not even very modern technology – means that phone numbers are not attached to physical phone lines.  This has been true ever since digital switches replaced mechanical ones.  Carriers like BellSouth need to use this technology to make sure their subscribers can be kept in communication during an extended disaster even if their phone lines are drowned or otherwise unreachable.

BellSouth also objects because “there is a possibility that an emergency voicemail service would not be available or could be adversely affected if network facilities are damaged.In other words, we shouldn’t make any preparation for an emergency which isn’t foolproof. (my interpretation of their statement). 

They have a point here, though.  I think they ought to tell their engineers to get working right away to make sure that either voicemail can be switched from an out-of-service central office to a working one or, at least, that voicemail is always stored or provided somewhere other than very near the subscriber to avoid both primary service and voicemail being taken out by the same disaster.  I’m sure they can figure out how to use their own networks to do this.  If not, there are plenty of competent outsourced voicemail providers who’d be glad to do it for them.  Distance is largely irrelevant in communication today.

The petition requires that carriers who do not provide voicemail and/or call forwarding in an emergency – even after having certified that they are able to do so – transfer affected numbers to any provider the subscriber chooses in order to maintain service and do this within two hours.  During Katrina, there were providers who volunteered to provide voicemail free for the duration of the emergency but the numbers were stuck with BellSouth.  It’s the two hour requirement which really frosts them.  “Under existing rules, ports involving wireline carriers must be completed within four days,” they say although they do concede that wireless carriers voluntarily do these ports in two and a half hours.

Transferring (porting, in technical jargon) a number from one carrier to another means a change in a database.  That’s it; nobody moves any wires.  The four days are for bureaucracy.  Sometimes you have to dispense with bureaucracy in a disaster.  By the way, this database is national so workers in the affected areas would NOT have to be tied up doing the porting.

Of course they object that there will be extra costs.  They say that they will have to license additional software and provide additional storage.  Sure, these things’ll cost something – but not very much.  Evidence?  Google and others can afford free storage for email; voicemail providers offered free voicemail during Katrina; storage is only needed for those actually affected by an emergency; and storage is cheap these days.  But the FCC should examine the costs and who should pay them during hearings.  It should also look at the costs imposed because so many people were unreachable.

They say that transferring numbers can result in billing foulups.  Gee, let’s just not have any service.  That’s a good way to avoid billing problems.

BellSouth objects that every emergency is different.  To some extent it IS true that you always plan for the last emergency.  That’s called learning.  Shame on us if we don’t.

BellSouth does want to learn.  “The Commission should allow the Independent Panel reviewing the impact of Hurricane Katrina to complete its task and publish a report with its recommendations.”  Of course, then it’ll be too late to do anything for this hurricane season but let’s not rush.  In the next sentence BellSouth requests immediate relief from some regulations that they don’t like – for some reason this doesn’t have to wait for a committee report.

I had a secret hope that BellSouth and the other carriers would say “don’t regulate us; we’re going to do this sensible stuff anyway.”  That would have been a good answer and demonstrated concern for their customers.  Instead they’ve thrown up a smokescreen of spurious objections and excuses.  That’s why monopolies need to be regulated.

BTW, just in case you thought BellSouth might come to its senses if its pending acquisition by at&t happens, don’t hold your breath.  at&t objects to the petition as well.

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Comments

Jamison

I love bellsouth like i love the federal govt (Which they are just a few steps from becoming)... check my link, goes directly to an article i wrote this week about my run in with Bellsouths Gangster-like ways.

D. C.

Tom, I don't have an opinion on the merits, but you and Jeff Pulver have done us all a real service by bringing the issue to the fore, and by being persistent to make sure it gets thoroughly evaluated. However it works out, many thanks.

candice

>>These people won’t be reachable on their old phone lines – some still aren’t.

Very true. A lot of the city still doesn't have phone service. I have one friend who kept getting told by bellsouth that he'd have a phone in April (CO flooded, apparently) and still hasn't gotten a landline back. He's switched to "digital telephone" via cable. Cox cable also put in place a package for people to keep their phone numbers, email addresses, and voicemail for 3.00/month, shortly after the storm, as well. They offered it to me when I went to cancel my cable to my damaged house.

And his neighborhood wasn't even one of the bad ones. The evening news has the "still have no phones" stories periodically, to go along with the "fema locked me out of my trailer"/"fema declared my house with 9 feet of water habitable" stories.

(Also, I would like to thank you for trying to help out. The world is gonna be broken down here for a while, and a lot of people and businesses seem content to write it off.)

Aswath

My take is that this is a simple case of political posturing. From operational point of view, it is simple to realize the main objective of the petition (not the specific mechanism). After all the telephone network is designed to quickly recognize "focused overload" and take immediate remedial action (like call gapping (for example see, "Keeping Lifelines Open", Lisa Guernsey, Sep 20, 2001, New York Times; see below). What is required is that the ability to administratively set the overload condition and the remedial action is to forward the call to a prescribed destination. The I am sure there will be many volunteers to accept the call and handle it appropriately (a voice mail server or even to a VoIP account). So I for one do not think there are cost or logistical issues and it can be done now.

In case you could not locate the NYT story, here is the relevant portion:
"Consider, for example, what happened that Tuesday in the AT&T operations center in Bedminster, N.J. That day, AT&T handled 431 million voice calls -- 20 percent more than usual and the most it had ever carried on a business day. The morning of the attacks, blue lines pointing toward New York City lighted up, indicating what the industry calls a ''focused overload.'' Long-distance calls cascading into New York's telephone system threatened local callers' ability to reach emergency services.

The solution was to block some of the calls coming into the city. In industry terms, the strategy is called ''call gapping,'' and it was employed with a few keystrokes by network managers at the control center. Managers typed commands that automatically prompted the AT&T system to keep a percentage of its circuits open for outbound long-distance calls. For people around the country who heard the message ''All circuits are busy,'' call gapping was a likely cause."

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