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September 06, 2005

Progress Towards Reclaiming Drowned Phone Numbers

There has been progress but there is still a way to go!

It is an inescapable fact that the phones of many Gulf Coast residents are underwater and likely to be inoperative for a long time.  There is no excuse for the fact that these residents still can’t use their phone numbers to receive voice mail and post announcements about their safety and whereabouts. 

I blogged Sunday here about Stuart Henshall’s brilliant idea here and here that the drowned lines be virtualized and that donated VoIP accounts with the same phone numbers as the inoperative lines be used to collect voice mail, play announcements, and let the displaced people start making the many phone calls they will have to make to make to put their lives back together.

I was concerned that VoIP accounts would not be much help unless broadband access and computer kiosks were available in shelters.  The wiring of shelters (or rather “unwiring” since WiFi is being used in many cases) is apparently well underway.  According to CNN here:

“Intel Corp., Microsoft Corp., Cisco Systems Inc., SBC Communications Inc., Dell Inc. and others are working with the Red Cross to build voice and data communications at hundreds of evacuation shelters, and link them together.

“The equipment -- including laptop computers and wireless access points -- will help the relief agency track evacuees as well as help them find emergency funds and track lost relatives…”

So lack of Internet access should NOT be a problem or an excuse for inaction.

Many other blogs – some with huge circulation like BuzzMachine, Scobleizer, and A VC – have repeated and/or endorsed Stuart’s idea or my retelling of it.  We’ll see how much that helps.

Jeff Pulver quickly endorsed the idea here – he named it “peace of mind” service - and has received expressions of interest and support from some VoIP vendors.

The FCC has taken some welcome action at its own initiative over the weekend to make it easier to port numbers in the impacted area to new carriers for the duration of the emergency (see PDF of order here).  Jeff Pulver praises the FCC and gives details here.  Basically, the FCC waived some waiting periods and notice requirements which would have delayed moving numbers for at least thirty days.

Unfortunately, what the FCC did is necessary but not sufficient.  Their order does NOT require that BellSouth immediately virtualize affected numbers so that they can quickly be made web-accessible; apparently it contemplates these numbers being transferred to other traditional carriers.  This is not likely to be an option for someone living in the Astrodome or moving from one place of refuge to the next.  Moreover, there is interesting language which says:

“We expect that the acquiring carriers will provide the affected customers with the same rates, terms and conditions of service as the customers’ originally authorized carrier.”

Without clarification, this could mean that the acquiring carrier can NOT offer better service including voice mail and call forwarding than the original carrier.  VoIP carriers, at least, should be able to offer better and cheaper service.  Some might decide to offer limited service free in the short term.

Stuart himself has been suggested that much of the same relief could be offered if the displaced families were given cheap cell phones with voice mail.  I agree although I think this may be more expensive and harder to implement.  The idea is not to promote VoIP – it is to help the people who need to reachable again before they can return to their homes.  It would be a great start if BellSouth itself would provide voice mail and tollfree access to everyone whose line is inoperative or who lives in a mandatory evacuation area..

The New York Times has an article here about the heroic efforts of BellSouth linemen to restore service starting with hospitals and emergency officials (not sure why FEMA is requiring so many new lines but guess they never heard of VoIP).  I’m sure the linemen are heroic and the work is necessary.  But it won’t help the people who can’t go home if phones start ringing in their empty, soggy houses.  The numbers need to be restored to their owners now – wherever their owners are.

ContactLovedOnes.org has implemented a tollfree number which can be used by both the missing and those who are seeking them to get in contact.  From their website:

“For example, Jane is looking for her missing father. She calls CLO’s toll-free number and enters his usual telephone number. She can then leave a voice message for him or listen to messages from him. When her father calls the toll-free number, he enters his own phone number. He can then leave a message for other callers to hear saying he is safe and how he can be contacted or he can listen to messages left for him.”

I can’t vouch for this service directly;  it is soliciting contributions through an affiliated 501(c)3.  Sounds like a step in the right direction and very timely.

By the next emergency, everything should already have been done to require the virtualization of inoperative phone numbers.  Given today’s technology, there is no reason why any subscriber’s phone NUMBER should be inoperative just because the phone company’s phone LINE or switch is out of service.

I hope we’ll be able to move quickly enough to virtualize phone numbers while that move can still help Katrina’s victims.

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