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September 04, 2005

A Brilliant Idea for Helping Katrina Victims

Stuart Henshall at Skype Journal has a brilliant idea for helping Katrina victims put their lives back together through restored communications.  You can read it here and a follow up here.

Stuart’s idea is that Bell South ought to immediately virtualize all the nonworking phone numbers in the stricken area.  VoIP providers can then immediately make it possible for the owners of these numbers to reclaim them from wherever they are, set up voice mail on them, and/or forward them to other working phone numbers.  Bell South can have the numbers back when the landlines are restored to service.

Assuming that Internet access is available (see below), a displaced family will immediately be able to put a greeting on their new voice mail account saying they are OK and giving as much information about their current location as they want to.  Family members desperately looking for the displaced people then only have to call their old phone numbers to get their current status AND to leave them voice mail.

Even without Internet access, these voice mailboxes would be accessible from payphones and mobile phones.

People in shelters can use their VoIP accounts to make the many phone calls that will be required to put their lives back together.  Although it will be hard to get inbound calls directly on a few shared computers, it will be easy for the people they call to get back to them and leave them voice mail. Not perfect but a hell of a lot better than being out of touch.

Obviously, broadband and shared computers must be made available in shelters in order for this idea to be fully effective.  There are so many reasons why Internet access is needed in long term shelters that I can’t believe this isn’t being worked on.  To the extent technical help is needed, I’ve no doubt that a squad of volunteer nerds can be raised and deployed to get this working.  If anyone either knows of people working on this or needing help on setting up broadband in a shelter, please feel free to use comments to this post as a meeting place.

The cost of VoIP “lines” is minimal and could be covered either by the families themselves, by VoIP providers, or by donations.  I know this won’t be a problem.  I promise this won’t be a problem.

The hardest part of getting this all to work will be getting Bell South to virtualize the lines.  The FCC  apparently has been too busy imposing obsolete mandates on VoIP providers to think about requiring existing quasi-monopoly providers to take advantage of new technology.  I can’t think of any good reason why every out-of-service line doesn’t already automatically become virtual and web-accessible (although I do have to admit I didn’t think about this until I read Stuart’s brilliant post).

According to a response to Stuart’s post, the FCC has moved to allow number portability out of the restricted area but this apparently only helps displaced people who can get a new landline – not likely to happen in the Astrodome any time soon.

If Bell South doesn’t move immediately to virtualize the lines it can’t serve, the FCC has a wonderful opportunity to show how government CAN move quickly to help the people it is responsible to and for.

Because I’m cynical about the probability of Bell South or the FCC doing what needs to be done quickly and because I’m afraid both will use the lack of broadband in shelters as an excuse for doing nothing, I think we need a two-track approach:

  1. Those of us who can help fund or set up broadband in shelters should do so irrespective of whether it can be used for VoIP.  People putting their lives back together need Internet access!  I’m blogging without finding out what efforts to wire shelters are already underway because I want to give Stuart’s brilliant idea as much exposure as possible as quickly as possible but I hope to learn more and, of course, will post what I learn.
  2. Let’s lobby the FCC and our local congressmen and senators in every way possible to make sure that the local numbers are moved to the Web instead of remaining terminated underwater in New Orleans.
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