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July 07, 2005

Call from London

As I write this, my daughter Kate is walking eight miles home from her job in central London to her flat on the outskirts.  We first heard about the despicable terrorist attack on London transport when she woke us early this morning to tell us that she and her husband are OK so we were spared the anxiety of knowing about the attack and trying to reach her.  On 9/11 there was an agonizing time before we got the email from New York daughter Kelly saying she was OK since both the landline and cell networks were crippled by overload and we couldn’t reach her.

According to CNN it has been difficult to get phone calls into and out of London.  Kate has no trouble reaching us presumably because we have a London Vonage number ($4.99/month – nothing per minute) so she makes only a local call and the Internet then carries the call to us. She can even call our London number on her mobile and give us progress reports on her hike (which I hope she’ll keep doing).  According to both CNN and our own experience, the Internet is working to, from, and within London.

During 9/11 when we were running VoIP wholesaler ITXC, we had first hand experience of how well the Internet coped with both physical destruction and an overload.  We handled unaccustomed volumes of domestic calls over our Internet connections as the traditional phone network, despite smart and heroic efforts by its operators, was temporarily brought to its knees.

The same has been true during earthquakes and other natural disasters.

So you would think that the FCC would want to find out how to make other voice networks as disaster-resistant as the Internet.  Instead the FCC ordered VoIP operators to offer the same (obsolete) E911 emergency service as traditional phone companies and made it harder for Internet services to replace less-capable and more vulnerable legacy services.  And, by the way, the FCC has been much more lenient with mobile services as far as E911 requirements than it has with VoIP systems even though mobile phones are used for a one third of 911 calls and mobile operators have had many years to get their act together. See a previous, less personal post about this.

So here’s what I think needs to happen:

  1. VoIP operators need to be very specific about how well traditional E911 works and doesn’t work with their services.  No excuse for not being clear about this.  Of course, traditional phone operators perhaps should disclose how poorly traditional switching networks deal with huge overloads.
  2. VoIP operators who want to sell in the US are probably best-served by complying with the FCC order despite the fact that it is misguided.
  3. The FCC needs to make clear that it will land like a ton of bricks on any attempt by the traditional operators who control the E911 infrastructure today to obstruct access by VoIP operators.  So far the FCC has signaled that it might not take any action in these cases!
  4. The Internet industry needs to develop an emergency location service based on IP address and packet technology and get it deployed.  I don’t think government “help” in this would be help at all.  I do think industry can and must develop an emergency response system appropriate for times of terror and disaster.  Jeff Pulver has a good post on this today.
  5. I’m not sure why we need the FCC  at all anymore if they envision their role as incumbent protection and monitoring TV shows for wardrobe malfunction.  In the likely event that we continue to have an FCC, it can study how best to migrate all of our data network including voice to an IP infrastructure and make sure that it is clear that emergency services offered by traditional phone operators are vulnerable to disruption in times of mass catastrophe.

I wish I had a five point plan for dealing with terrorism itself and I wish I hadn’t blogged just this week about the recent lack of terrorist attacks on the US.  But there is no excuse for not further developing terrorist-resistant communication.  I want to be sure the call or email from Kate saying she got home safely gets through.

UPDATE: Just got the call that Kate has hiked safely home.

This post is available as a podcast.

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