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WiFi – The Bridge That DIDN’T Fail

According to a story last Saturday in PC World Online:

A new Wi-Fi network in Minneapolis -- only partially completed and just two months old -- is nonetheless giving the city critical help in responding to this week's collapse of the I-35W bridge. The network helped the city with communications, moving large mapping files to the recovery site, and is supporting wireless cameras that are being installed to help with recovery operations.”

Fortunately some of the network which had been completed was near the site of the bridge collapse. WiFi networks, by their nature, are very flexible. This one hadn’t been designed for this emergency, obviously, but part of the reason that Minneapolis became the anchor tenant of this system was to enhance the delivery of emergency services.

Not only the physical network but also its owners were fast and flexible in dealing with the emergency. Also from PC World:

“Joe Caldwell, the co-founder of Minneapolis-based US Internet and CEO of USI Wireless, the subsidiary providing the Wi-Fi service, said he immediately called the city to see what officials needed within 10 minutes of seeing reports of the disaster on the news. But Caldwell said he couldn't get through on his cell phone, prompting the company to open the Wi-Fi network to anyone, thus allowing people with Wi-Fi enabled telephones to make a voice call.”

Obviously anyone with a WiFi-enabled device of any kind including computers which almost all have WiFi now was able to communicate once the network was opened up. That gave emergency workers and volunteers instant communication even when the cellphone network was overloaded.

Contrast the behavior of US Internet with that of BellSouth who, after Katrina, couldn’t be convinced to give free voicemail to their customers whose landline phones were underwater.

Those of us who lived any amount of time in the telco world appreciate the irony in this quote from the same article about the “difficulty” of opening the WiFi network up to free use: “Doing so was not easy because back-end systems were configured for payment, he [Caldwell] said. As a result, it took about 45 minutes [emphasis added] to open the network to all users for free.”

It is possible that BellSouth would have taken months to configure their system for free voicemail even had they wanted to. We never could make the AT&T billing software capable of charging existing phone customers for AT&T WorldNet – had to make it a credit card only service.

But back to WiFi and the Internet. They work well in emergencies BECAUSE they are not very well-controlled systems. They aren’t designed with specific applications in mind so have the flexibility to be repurposed (or, more accurately, to repurpose themselves) quickly for new demands.

The Internet held up better than the phone network on 9/11 and in many natural disasters. New Orleans WiFi network was a bright spot after Katrina. WiFi helped Minneapolis. It’s very important to understand this as we prepare to spend billions of dollars on special purpose public safety networks which look a lot like the old phone and cellular networks and are just as likely NOT to serve as well in an emergency as an open network.

Related posts:

If You Liked FEMA, You’ll Love BellSouth

America’s Antiterrorist Network

$140000000 Down a Subway Hole

Frontline Wireless’ Bad Idea

$140,000,000 Down a Subway Hole

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority just spent $140,000,000 to extend police radio coverage in NYC to the subway system.  According to the NY Times, the extension doesn’t work and the Police Department refuses to use it.  Oh, according to the Times, and the Fire and Police Departments won’t be able to communicate with each other on this network even if it does work because they’re using different frequencies.  Forget the incompetence and the fact that it might be fixable for another $20 million or so: this kind of system is the wrong solution for public safety today.

Today’s Internet technology can make public safety communication much more capable than yesterday’s voice radio systems, end forever the problem of police radios not talking to fire department radios,  and can better survive manmade or natural disasters.  Moreover it’s cheaper and can be installed faster.

So why aren’t we using Internet technology as the basis for voice and all other communications between first responders?  Part of the answer is that it has only been for the last few years that the technology has been available (the New York project started ten years ago).  Part of the answer is that most upgrades are incremental so there’s a value in being compatible with what already exists.  Part of the answer is that someone has to go first.

Quick review: The Internet was designed to be secure against nuclear attack in a very untraditional way.  Instead of burying it under a mile of concrete (early idea), it was made out of cheap and highly redundant components.  Instead of having a central intelligence that directed its operation (buried under two miles of concrete, presumably), it has no central intelligence: over-simplifying somewhat, packets of data find the way from sender to recipient on their own.  Although packet deliver is not guaranteed and sometimes doesn’t happen, applications can be built at the endpoints with almost any desired degree of reliability.

Any one part of the Internet is vulnerable to attack and certainly can fail on its own.  The network of all these cheap components is the toughest network ever built.  I had first hand experience with this at VoIP wholesaler ITXC: whether it was an earthquake in Turkey, the horror of 9/11, or the exuberance of Chinese New Year, the Internet functioned (somewhat degraded) when traditional phone networks ground to a halt.

The two paragraphs above are about the Internet backbone: now is the time to project from the lessons of the backbone to build an access network, at least for public safety but really for many of the rest of us as well.  It was an access network that the Transportation Authority was trying to build in New York.

For this post, let’s stick to an urban environment.  One simple answer is to make sure every outdoor spot (and all the subway system) is covered by at least two WiFi radios.  An alternative is to use the data portion of third generation cellular technology; but lets stick with the WiFi in this post. 

The radios are cheap and draw relatively little power.  They should have batteries for backup, of course.  The ones with a southern exposure should have solar collectors to extend battery life.

The simplest way to use these COULD be with a device that looks and operates just like today’s VHF radios.  It would be dumb to make such a dumb device on such a capable network but it could be done.

It would be much better to have a device that looks and operates something like a Blackberry or a Palm Treo (OK, like an iPhone).  Now first responders can have IM, email, maps, and a way to look at, take, and transmit pictures.  Wouldn’t that be cool?  No extra network cost.

How many frequencies?  Wrong question.  Any of these devices could be on any one of an essentially infinite number of channels.  Obviously, subnets would be carved out during an incident for use by people responding to that incident.  Since all the devices are WiFi-based, frequency incompatibility simply can’t happen.

Security?  VHF radio is not secure today certainly.  It’s harder (but not impossible) to tap digital data than analog voice communication, particularly when all sorts of stuff is mixed in the same packet stream.  However, end-to-end encryption between any sets of these devices that need security would work fine (for most applications) and not add much expense.

Using an Internet architecture with no controlling hub, cheap radios and easy redeployment of replacements provides better survivability than our legacy radio systems.  The technology is almost here to allow a mesh deployment so that nearby fixed radios create a backbone over the air between them.  Just a little further down the road using this technology, each radio carried can also create a net with nearby radios.  Since the mobile radios run off their own batteries, the network is even more survivable.

Inside a building is a problem for any radio system.  Another sad story from 9/11 was that the building itself blocked transmissions to those laboring up the stairwells (apparently, a fix for that problem had been installed after the attempted bombing of the WTC but was turned off).  Part of the certification of big urban structures should be WiFi availability; in many cases and in many places it already exists, but some invention is needed to open secured networks for emergency purposes.  Also mesh between devices will help cover dead spots.

But what about cost?  With no experience we have to take a swag.  The San Francisco Chronicle estimates the cost of WiFi covering all San Francisco at $12 million. Since New York has ten times as many people, let’s make that $120 million even though New York population is a little denser.   And let’s throw in $20 million for the subway tunnels and other assorted features. 

Funny thing is we come up with the same $140 million the Transportation Authority spent for a network that doesn’t work.  But this network can do data; this network survives disasters better; this network has no frequency limitations.  And, oh yeah, there’s room on this network for everybody else to access the Internet whether there’s an emergency or not.

Where do you think it’ll be built first?

More on a survivable network:

America’s Antiterrorist Network

America’s Antiterrorism Network – Distributed Data Storage

Interview in New Orleans Times-Picayune

Interest in the petition Jeff Pulver and I filed with the FCC has picked up with the release of a survey by at&t showing that the technology Gulf Coast residents most want in a disaster is voicemail.  Yesterday Bruce Albert of the New Orleans Times-Picayune interviewed me on the petition which, if granted, would require carriers to make voicemail available to all residents during an emergency like Katrina. The resulting story is here.

The interview also covers my concern over a part of at&t's statement opposing our petition in which they say that voicemail - which they have just said is what people most depend on - might not work in a disaster.  BellSouth, which at&t is seeking permission to acquire,  said the same thing.  Terrible engineering if true and needs fixing.

It would be nice if at&t would read its own survey and take reasonable action.  But maybe the survey'll help get the FCC to take action.

Will at&t Voicemail Work in an Emergency?

According to a survey of Gulf Coast residents commissioned by at&t, the most desired technology during a natural disaster is a voice mailbox (54% of respondents). However, at&t apparently doesn’t have confidence in its own ability to keep existing voicemail working in a catastrophe. 

It would be nice if at&t would listen to these hurricane survivors and stop opposing the petition that Jeff Pulver and I filed with the FCC requiring that voice mail be available on all landlines during a disaster.  But don’t hold your breath. 

The press release announcing the survey results has a long list of things people ought to do to get ready for a disaster.  #2 says:

“Prepare for the Worst-Case Scenario. During natural disasters, such as hurricanes or flooding, wireline services can be interrupted for extended periods of time because of damage caused by high winds or flooding. Wireless phones may serve as alternative means of communication.”

No mention here of the fact that a phone NUMBER can remain operative even if the phone LINE is down IF voicemail has been provided on the number.  Way down on the list at #7 is the statement:

“Know Where to Meet. Agree on a physical and virtual meeting place such as a voice mailbox or online chat site.”

But, of course, this won’t work unless voicemail is installed on a telephone number.  For some reason at&t does NOT suggest ordering voicemail service as a step in emergency preparedness.  Would have thought at least that the survey results create a marketing opportunity for this lucrative service even if at&t is unwilling to provide it to everyone on  a standby basis in an emergency as we have requested.

at&t may not have much confidence in the survivability of its voicemail capability.  In their response to our petition they say:

“Finally, the petition fails to address the very real likelihood that in a disaster impacting a large geographic area, such as a hurricane or earthquake, the platform supporting a provider’s voice mail service may be damaged along with the rest of the provider’s network, thus preventing the provider from fulfilling the mandatory voice mail proposal suggested by petitioners.”

Huh?  Is at&t actually locating voicemail storage anywhere near the switches serving the subscribers who own the mailboxes?  That would be really dumb.  Good thing for the FCC to look at.  Good case for truth in labeling if so because it means that the emergency facility MOST DESIRED BY USERS ACCORDING TO at&t is NOT reliable in an emergency.

If this is the case, they should tell people NOT to rely on this facility since the survey makes clear that people think voicemail WILL work (and, if this is the case, at&t or any other phone company with this problem should immediately reengineer).  If this is not the case, if voicemail really has been engineered as it should be so that it won’t be affected by the same catastrophe as the primary switch, then at&t should stop using this as an excuse NOT to provide emergency voicemail on all downed lines.

Voicemail for Disasters – Reader Comments on Price

The telcos have told the FCC that they think the cost of providing free voicemail to subscribers displaced by a Katrina-like emergency would be a substantial obstacle. I calculated a capital cost of less than a penny per subscriber to provide every subscriber with ten megs of storage for voicemail.  Reader DG Lewis points out, correctly, that there may be licensing costs involved.  Here’s his comment in full:

“Another suggestion would be to reach out to one or more voicemail system providers and engage their support - and provide some more realistic cost figures than ‘a penny a mailbox’.

“Sure, disk storage is cheap - but the cost of voicemail systems isn't in the hardware, it's amortizing the software development and support. You will not be taken seriously telling the FCC that voicemail costs a penny a mailbox when carriers are able to take them purchase orders written to Comverse and Avaya with prices of a couple of bucks per mailbox. Unless you plan to go into the voicemail development business and sell the carriers two million lines of voicemail capacity for $20k.”

I am NOT planning to go into this business (important disclaimer since I am pushing for the VM requirement).

I liked Lewis’ suggestion that we get the opinion of a VM expert so I urged Craig Walker, founder of voicemail provider GrandCentral, to comment.  Here’s what he wrote:

“Great entry. In response to some of the prior comments here, it is true that voicemail costs can be more than the raw storage costs. However, most of these costs are licensing costs by the voicemail vendor. If there is a decision to require the telcos to provide voicemail temporarily in an emergency, that order might also be able to provide relief for these licensing costs as well, particularly if the service is only being provided temporarily. As such the true costs would only be for incremental storage costs.

“Regardless, the costs to the telcos all depends on their specific voicemail systems and agreements with their vendors. Its also likely they might have a license for nearly unlimited accounts, in which case the incremental license costs would be zero, or they might have (God forbid) built their own systems...which again would have the incremental costs down to the storage costs.

“We (GrandCentral) built our own voicemail as we weren't interested in paying the high licensing costs described above and are now able to offer free local phone numbers and voicemail to the homeless and temporarily displaced in the San Francisco Bay Area through our Project CARE initiative (kudos to PacWest Telecomm for providing the DIDs for free). If a 12 person start-up that has been in business for 6 months can do it, I'm certain the RBOCs should be able to figure it out.”

Now I know from my time at AT&T that it can be very expensive to do very simple things in a huge bureaucracy and Craig may be too generous in assuming that an RBOC can do what his twelve person startup can.  So let’s do a reductio ad aburdsum on the cost argument and put it behind us forever.

Telcos sell voice mail to their customers for between $4 and $7/month.  We’ll assume that there is NO profit at $4, that this is the true cost to them.  I know this assumption is absurd but I want to prove a point.  Now let’s assume that, in any given year, one percent of a telco’s customers need to be given free voice mail for an average time of three months each.  Again a very exaggerated assumption.  If the telco is going to recover this cost by increasing prices to the whole customer base (because this is insurance for the whole customer base), the monthly price increase would be one penny. Here’s an example:

Megatel has 10,000,000 subscribers.  By our assumptions, 100,000 (one percent) will need disaster voicemail each year.  That’s 300,000 months of voicemail which we are assuming cost Megatel an astronomical $4/month each or $1,200,000 total.  With 10,000,000 subscribers there are 120,000,000 monthly bills sent out each year. If each of them is one penny higher, Megatel recovers its $1,200,000.  If there aren’t many disasters, they get to keep it.

Of course, Megatel could also hire Craig Walker or someone else competent and reduce this cost by 99%.

I posted here about the trip Jeff Pulver and I made to Washington, DC to push for better telecommunications preparation for disasters which leave cities in exile.  Jeff posted here.

Disaster Relief Meetings at The FCC

Jeff Pulver and I went down to Washington, DC today for a series of meetings at the Federal Communication Commission on the petition Jeff and I filed last spring for better phone service in and following a Katrina-like disaster.  The meetings were arranged by Pulver.com General Counsel Jonathan Askin who accompanied us (guided us is more like it) from floor to floor and office to office as we met with two of the five commissioners and staff representing the other three.  Planned to see more of the commissioners but an open Commission meeting scheduled for morning ended up happening in the afternoon; so much for schedules.

Frankly, Jeff and I had been disappointed in the lack of action on our petition.  Sadly but not surprisingly, both the telcos and the cablecos filed strong comments against it. There is no mention of our plan to provide voice mail to displaced victims of future disasters in the official report of the Independent Panel Reviewing the Impact of Hurricane Katrina.  So that’s why our field trip.

Afterwards we’re encouraged by the questions, advice, and general support we got.  We’re daunted by the amount of work that still has to be done if what we think of as a simple idea is actually to be implemented in time to help with the next big emergency or even the one after that.

Just to review: Katrina was different than most previous disasters.  Usually something happens and people leave or hunker down for a couple of days.  Workers with chain saws and cherry pickers turn out in large numbers, saw down fallen limbs, tow away stranded cars, and do an excellent job of repairing downed phone and power lines.  Life almost immediately begins to return to normal for the communities as a whole although many individual families struggle for years to rebuild their lives.

Katrina was different.  Both because of the sheer size of the storm and because the floodwaters lingered in much of the low-lying city, New Orleans (and the oft-ignored surrounding areas) became a city in exile. Even today, many families have not returned.

From a communication point of view, services that managed to reach the citizens in exile were among the few Katrina success stories.  People in shelters could see nola.com online even if they couldn’t get paper copies of the Times-Picayune; WWLTV reached its scattered audience through an ad hoc arrangement with Yahoo; the Slidell blog kept Slidell residents current with the latest from that Louisiana town.

But repairing phone lines to drowned neighborhoods which were both uninhabitable and under evacuation orders did NOT restore communication to the people from these neighborhoods.  Those too poor to have cell phones, VoIP, or the extra-cost voice mail feature on their landlines were simply out of touch.  We all remember the terrible stories of split families not sure who was in what shelter or even who got out.  Emergency crews risked their own lives searching for people who had actually escaped but could not be located.  People outside the stricken area couldn’t find out what happened to their friends and relatives who were last heard from in the hurricane’s path.

As any Red Cross emergency volunteer will tell you (Mary is my source for this), names are a lousy way to locate people: they never get input the same way twice; they are not unique.  Phone numbers are great but the phones weren’t working. However, ever since telco switches went electronic, there has been no hard connection between a phone number and the physical line it is linked to. 

Those evacuees who had voice mail could leave greetings saying that they were safe and giving their location.  Family members could leave each other messages. Our proposal, over-simplified, is that phone companies be required to provide voice mail free to ALL of their subscribers when those subscriber lines are in an emergency area and/or have been down for twelve hours or more.  Then everyone who had a phone line will still be reachable through his or her old phone number even if the line itself is drowned or unreachable.

One of the things that was encouraging today is that the commissioners and staffers we meant for asked intelligent questions and helped us make the plan better.  These are the kind of questions people ask when they want to make something work.  These are the kind of question the telcos did NOT ask in their haste to condemn the plan?

Q: What if someone is in their home in a disaster area and needs to be able to answer their phone?  We won’t be doing them a favor if the calls all go to voice mail.

A: Good question.  If the line is physically functioning, the voice mail service should only kick in after a specified number of rings – telco people call this rna (ring no answer).

Q: Is this for all lines including business PBXes?

A: No.  There is plenty of room for better commercial disaster solutions for businesses but we’re talking here about single line residential service.

Q: What about education?  How are people going to be convinced to invest time learning to use voice mail in an emergency when the voice mail isn’t even available to them until an emergency happens?

A: Another good question.  We believe that volunteers at shelter will encourage people to activate voice mail as they check into the shelters.  To the credit of many carriers and volunteers, there were phones and computers in most shelters almost immediately.  Volunteers spend a lot of time helping people find each other. Showing the evacuees how to use VM for this purpose will probably free volunteers to do other needed tasks.  I know there is a mechanism for teaching tools to volunteers: Mary is in the middle of a two-day Red Cross phone center course as I blog.

Q: If the actual switches are underwater or otherwise out of service, how will the voice mail be provided?

A: Carriers already have the ability to route away from afflicted switches.  AT&T demonstrated that very effectively in coping with 9/11.  Hopefully, they are already provisioning voice mail storage remote from switches for security and survivability reasons.

Q: What about the cost?  The carriers said it would be very expensive?

A: The carriers didn’t give any specifics on cost.  At the current RETAIL cost of disk storage, we calculate it’ll cost less than one cent per customer capital cost to make 10 meg mailboxes available (details here).

Q: Aren’t you two going to say anything about Net Neutrality or the Universal Service Fund or any other VoIP or IP issues?

A: (with great discipline) Not today.  Today is about disaster relief and we do not believe that IP technology is required for this particular solution.

Advice we got and will try to follow:

  1. Submit all this as a comment on the Victory Commission Report.  We’ll do this.  Had initially hoped to have this relief in place before the report and before the current hurricane season but it didn’t happen.
  2. Get some political champions.
  3. Get emergency services on board for this and advocating it.
  4. Get some press coverage.
  5. Keep it up.

That’s how things work in a democracy.  We’ll do what we can.

In the spirit of open government, here’s whom we met with:

Comm’r McDowell’s Office:

  Dana Shaffer

Wireline Competition Bureau:

  Tom Navin

  Marcus Maher


Julie Veach

Enforcement Bureau (on behalf of Chairman Martin):

  Ken Moran

Comm’r Copps’ Office:

Scott Deutchman

Bruce Gottlieb

Comm’r Tate’s Office:

  Deborah Tate

  Ian Dillner

Comm’r Adelstein’s Office:

  Jonathan Adelstein

  Scott Bergmann

In her remarks on the release of the Victory Commission recommendations, Commissioner Tate wrote: “When disaster strikes, our first reaction is to reach out to those we love.  We call for help, we call loved ones to tell them we are okay, and we call to offer assistance to those in need.”

We couldn’t agree more.  We want to be sure those calls can be made.

Jeff posted his account here.

America’s Antiterrorism Network – Distributed Data Storage

Distributed data storage is a PROVEN way to protect data from accidental and deliberate destruction. Moreover, distributing data reduces the need for backbone bandwidth and makes meshed WiFi access networks like those I proposed last week more practical both for security purposes and as ONE (there should be more) alternative to the access duopoly which leaves Americans badly underserved and over-charged today.

Yale Law Professor Yochai Benkler writes:

“Imagine a data storage and retrieval system that stores millions of discrete files, in a way that can be accessed, searched and retrieved by millions of users, who can access the system wherever they are connected to the Internet. Imagine that this system is under a multi-pronged attack. Its enemies have used a variety of techniques, ranging from shutting down the main search server under the threat of armed seizure, to inserting malicious files to corrupt the system, to capturing and threatening the operators of storage devices. Imagine that even through all these assaults, the system continues to operate, and continues to provide high quality storage, search, and retrieval functionality to millions of users worldwide. That would be a system worth studying as a model for cybersecurity, would it not?

“That system has in fact been in existence for five years, and it has indeed been under the kinds of attacks described over this entire period. It is the peer-to-peer music file sharing system. It is the epitome of a survivable system…”

You can’t drop a bomb on the data storage vaults of Kazaa because they don’t exist.  The  data is replicated rather than protected.  The music files exist in thousands of redundant copies on the hard drives of cooperating Kazaa users.  Even a fiendish online attack would not get all the copies, Yochai points out, because at any given minute many of the computers that host them are offline (mine is in an airplane right now for example). Moreover, individual users back up their computers even if none of us do that as often as we should.

Data replication within a network also serves to make the network faster and reduce the demands on network bandwidth.  Some systems for file sharing divide the file between multiple machines, each of which can then serve back pieces of it in parallel.  Some systems automatically create new copies of files close to where there has been high demand for the file.

Not incidentally, file migration and other forms of caching are reasons why mesh networks CAN provide much better Internet access than some skeptics think (see TechDirt’s reasonable but skeptical response to my WiFi post.  Especially read the comments on TechDirt both pro and con).  When data migrates closer and closer to those who are using it, it should often be possible to supply it directly on the mesh network without burdening the local mesh network’s connection to the broader Internet once the initial replication has occurred.

Yochai also addresses privacy and secrecy issues which sound like they would be a problem if data is sleeping around on willing hosts. Part of the answer is to store only part of each file on any one host.  Encryption is another part.  No need to ever store a key and the data in the same place.  No security is absolute but this doesn’t look like an intractable problem.

Much informed by Yochai, here’s what I think will happen (I am responsible for the predictions so don’t blame him):

  1. The growth of cooperative data storage and distribution systems like BitTorrent and Gnutella will continue, largely as a way to distribute both legal and illegal entertainment content. Yahoo! News ran a Reuters story last November which quote the British Web analysis firm CacheLogic as saying that BitTorrent accounts for about 35% of all web traffic! I doubt this number but there’s little doubt about the growth of cooperative file sharing and distribution.
  2. Smart corporations will find a way to cooperate in distributed data storage mainly for disaster recovery services. This trend will be slowed by well-meaning regulators who will prefer data protection methods they understand even if these methods are ultimately less secure than anonymous distribution.
  3. Free data backup from Google and Microsoft and others will include some degree of redundancy and distribution but will suffer from distrust of these companies as repositories, limited redundancy, and the fact that these companies as repositories will have no choice but to respond to subpoenas and will occasionally be hacked, usually by disgruntled employees.
  4. Several free cooperative replication data backup systems for consumers will emerge.  Some will be pure co-ops; others will have commercial models. At first only nerds will use them; eventually distributed data storage – like almost universal access (not here yet) – will be taken for granted as an obvious and necessary part of cyberspace.

America’s Antiterrorist Network

Now doesn’t “America’s Antiterrorist Network” sound better than “Net Neutrality”? Maybe not if you’re on one of our two left coasts but it certainly does anywhere else.  The difference that nomenclature makes was one of the few areas of agreement on the net neutrality issue at a fascinating discussion on Public Policy and Innovation sponsored by Union Square Ventures.

The problem posed by duopoly ownership of much of communication access in the United States goes beyond whether Google has to pay extra somehow for being googled. The problem is already manifest in the high price Americans pay for inferior access (compared to other developed and some developing countries).  And it is a national security problem. 

Our communication infrastructure did poorly on 9/11: the phone network, despite heroic efforts, buckled temporarily with the loss of several switches; poor radio communication cost rescuers their lives; cell towers were overburdened; the Internet did reasonably well.  9/11 was unexpected and, to most of us, unimaginable so it’s hard to assess much blame for these failures.

We knew Hurricane Katrina was coming.  The traditional networks failed badly in Katrina and haven’t yet been fully repaired.  Phone lines were literally drowned and/or inaccessible because of evacuation orders.  The Bells are fiercely resisting efforts to force them to use modern technology to serve their customers better next time. Cell towers didn’t have adequate supplies of diesel to keep their standby generators running. Traditional wireline Internet access was down.

Some of this was technology failure; some was just poor planning.  WWLTV had set up emergency and backup emergency facilities.  They had adequate fuel and provision to put up their staff for a month if need be.  They never left the air.  Equally important, they quickly worked with Yahoo! to make their local coverage available to the residents of a city in exile no matter where in the country they were and to the rest of the world as well.  NOLA.com was an extension of traditional newspaper coverage by other means.  That’s the power of the Internet; we may have more cities in exile.

A meshed WiFi network was quickly created in the week after the hurricane hit.  That network is still key in the recovery of the city.  You can read here about efforts by BellSouth to shut it down through Louisiana legislation and how the network, at least for now, will be extended by EarthLink.

We know that hurricanes and earthquakes and fires will continue to happen and probably more terrorist attacks as well.  We can’t leave our ability to respond in the hands of those whose most important concern is the continued ability to collect duopoly rent.

Those of us who are optimists believe that competition will rapidly solve the problems caused by duopoly.  Pessimists say that we won’t get rid of the duopoly and/or that competition doesn’t work in providing universally needed infrastructure (roads, for example) so we need either extensive reregulation or government ownership. “Do we want FEMA operating our communication infrastructure?” someone asked at USVSessions. Andy Kessler suggests using eminent domain to seize the poorly run assets of the monopolists.

I think we’d end up overpaying for outdated assets – much of whose value comes from rights of way we have granted.  I’m still an optimist who believes in competition.  But from where?

New Orleans helps point the way: meshed WiFi networks.  They’re comparatively cheap: cost in the millions per city which is nothing for a municipal project or compared to what FEMA is spending to NOT leave us very well prepared.  They can be built extremely quickly since you don’t need to tear up streets – just need access to municipally owned structures like light poles to put antennas on.  A city can be unwired (politics aside) in less time than it takes to build a new bridge.

Meshed WiFi survives.  Not every node of course but the system as a whole which is what counts.  Like the Internet itself, the survivability of a meshed WiFi network depends on a profusion of cheap components, no one of which is a single point of failure, rather than expensive invulnerable components.  The networks are self-healing so there is no central control which might be accidentally knocked out by a hurricane or purposely targeted by a terrorist.

Power is a problem.  At least some nodes need to have solar panels, backup generators, and/or little windmills – preferably a mix of all three.  For security reason, it’s as important that the power supply be distributed as it is for the communications resources.

WiFi, of course, can be use to access the phone network (VoIP), the Internet, private intranets, and even to supplement or bridge between radio networks.

National security aside, these WiFi networks would provide some of the needed commercial competition to the current access duopoly.

Dwight Eisenhower’s greatest skill as a general was logistics.  It’s no exaggeration to say that American factories as well as American soldiers and American technology won World War II.  But Ike knew how hard it had been during the war to move goods within the USA from supply to factory to port.  As President he championed the National Defense Highway System aka The Interstates.  Not incidentally, these were a key element of US economic success two generations ago.  Now, for both defense and economic reasons, it’s time for America’s Antiterrorism Network.

Starting this would be a worthwhile diversion of FEMA funds – particularly those targeted to rebuilding or strengthening the obsolete networks of today. That’s why the patriotic name.  But much can be done locally or by private providers working with cities like Google in San Francisco, MetroFi in Portland, or EathLink in New Orleans.

Brilliant Professor Yochai Benkler of Yale, who was at the USVSessions2 event, has postulated a survivable network of not just access but also storage and computing power.  Look how well distributed search and storage networks like Napster and Kazaa survive attempts by powerful private entities and governments to shut them down, he says.  Good point.  He envisions these networks consisting of a collaborative use of private resources including WiFi radios.  Fascinating stuff and subject for another post here.

Benkler’s collaborative network may well be where we end up.  For now, we could use a cheaper, more survivable network than we’ve got as well as a lot more competition.  WiFi mesh in America’s Antiterrorist Network is a big part of the answer.

Day 1 of The 2006 Atlantic Hurricane Season

That’s today, June 1.  The New Orleans area (including nearby Mississippi which doesn’t get the same press coverage) is far from recovered from last year.  Brian Oberkirch took the photo below THIS April.  Click on it to see the entire flickr set he calls 53 days to Hurricane Season.


Brian is one of the amazing people I met at an Aspen Institute Conference in Maryland a couple of weeks ago who actually were able to do things which made a substantial difference in the aftermath of Katrina.  Three days after the hurricane hit, he started the Slidell Hurricane Damage Blog from his refuge in Texas because:

“There is so little good information about what is going on in Slidell right now.  I’m going to round up confirmed news reports here.   Not rumors or what someone is saying on forums.  God bless those folks for offering what they know, but there is a bit of the telephone game going on.  So, we’ll round up photos, link to things, etc.  If you have any information, please send it to me at…”

Quickly this blog became the key resource for people in Slidell to reconnect with each other and find out what had become of their homes and city.

Not surprisingly, Brian is trying to use the conference at as a springboard for better disaster preparedness not only in Louisiana but everywhere in the US. He talks some about this in a guest post on Earthling. Brian also recorded a podcast of him and me at the conference and posted it here.  I’m sure we’ll here more about and from Brian.

As Brian points out, there is some good news on Earthling about EarthLink (the owner of the Earthling blog) getting approval to “build-out and support a WiFi Network in New Orleans.”  According to the post:

“The network will have two tiers -- a free (and ad-free) service at up to 300kbps during the city's rebuilding efforts, and a paid service at 1mbps up/down. EarthLink will also allow other providers to offer their services over the network, allowing for open access and competition.”

I suspect but don’t know that the weasel wording “during the city’s rebuilding efforts” are a compromise to keep the telcos at bay.  Unbelievably, according to New Orleans CIO Greg Meffert, another disaster hero, as quoted online by Red Herring prior to the EarthLink announcement:

“The vendors, the BellSouths of this world, are not only going to force us back, making our existing Wi-Fi illegal, but also they want to close a loophole for emergencies so that we would not do this again.”

He said he’ll go to jail if necessary rather than shutdown the ad hoc municipal WiFi network which was so quickly established and which has been a key part of the city’s recovery.

I posted previously about the conference and some plans we made.

Recovery 2.0 – A Plan

Thanks to Jeff Jarvis, I’m at an Aspen Institute conference called Katrina’s Lessons. Actually, it’s the Katrina media lessons that are being examined here.  Purpose, not surprisingly, is to do better next time.  Interesting mix of old media, new media, and government people.  I think we’ve come up with some good, workable ideas.

Very good thing is that some of the attendees, unlike, me have Katrina experience.  Jon Donley is the founder and editor of nola.com, sister website to The Times-Picayune.  The site had thirty million page views in a day immediately following the hurricane and did a great job keeping New Orleans people informed, especially when it was still impossible to publish and distribute a physical paper and when many of them were (as many still are) displaced.

Brian Oberkirch is the famous founder of the Slidell Hurricane Damage Blog, a great example of citizen journalism.

Martha Carr is the Assistant City Editor of The Times-Picayune and reported from the city as soon as she could get back in. 

Chris Slaughter is the Assistant News Director of TV Station WWL.  Great planning meant they were able to stay on the air without interruption – lots to learn from them.  Also have a website with many feeds – very important to people still not able to return to the viewing area.

Anyway, as happens at this kind of conference, we got broken up into working groups,  mine charged with working on how old and new media work together before, during, and after the next emergency.  Brian Oberkirch, Bill Gannon who’s Senior Editorial Director of Yahoo!, and I were the new media types.  Barbara Cochran, President of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, and Bob Long, Vice President and News Director of KNBC in LA, represented the “old”media.  My favorite on air weatherman, Jim Cantore from The Weather Channel, spanned the media generations.

Here’s the plan:

Before the next disaster (hopefully), we’ll try a pilot project in disaster-vulnerable LA.  The traditional media will work on making their content, including stuff that doesn’t make it onto the air or into print, more accessible including using the latest in search engine optimization, tagging, etc.  Bloggers and web users in general will benefit from direct access to this info and being able to incorporate it in blogs, maps and various mashups. Goal is to do a better job than either new or old media can do alone in mitigating effects of future disasters with planning, info on planning, exposure of non-planning, and dissemination of information needed in a disaster.

During a disaster (because of advance planning, obviously) physical broadcast facilities will become publicly usable hotspots.  Remember, they already have tall towers, backup power, Internet connections, and engineering talent.  Other locations in the LA region will be encouraged to advertise themselves as hardened hotspots.

Purpose of this is to avoid communication blackouts, facilitate information input both from professionals, amateurs, and everyone inbetween including the holders of camera phones, and to create alternative ways to distribute critical graphic and text information when power blackouts may darken traditional TVs but leave battery powered computers – including cellphones – able to retrieve information and even view TV feeds.

After a disaster comes review.  But we are also recommending that post-disaster New Orleans continue to build a wireless, reasonably autonomous, mesh network as its communication system of the future.  My contention (don’t want to blame this on the group) is that New Orleans can build a failure–resistant system complete with distributed standby power for considerably LESS than rebuilding the legacy copper system which did not serve it well during Katrina.  But it’ll take a lot of persistence to make sure that aid money doesn’t end up rebuilding the past.

Will this all happen?  I don’t know but there are dedicated people here used to making ideas come to life.  I hope so.  Also looking forward to see what the other working groups come up with.

Note to bloggers: the tag “recovery2” is a good one to use on posts related to learning and applying the lessons of Katrina.

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