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March 13, 2006

Never Again!

This post is about a petition Pulver.com (Jeff Pulver) and Evslin Consulting (Mary and I) filed with the FCC this morning hoping to mitigate some of the effects of communications system failures in catastrophes as soon as possible but certainly before next summer’s hurricane season.

One of the many huge problems after Katrina was the large number of  unlocatable refugee families.  Parents couldn’t find children from whom they’d been separated; people outside the afflicted area had no way to know whether their friends and families who had been in harm’s way were safe.  In some cases rescue workers made dangerous attempts to find people who had already safely evacuated but couldn’t be located.

The Red Cross runs a name-based database for refugees but names are a notoriously unreliable way to locate people in a large-scale disaster and, of course, not every refugee was in a Red Cross shelter.  In an attempt to help, many of the cyber-able set up bulletin boards for refugees to list themselves on and for seekers to search.  But the very profusion of boards became a problem itself.

Of course, those who had cell phones were not missing for long.  Even if they weren’t always directly reachable, they could leave an announcement on their voice mail saying they were safe and telling how to reach them.  Similarly VoIP phones could be plugged in once their owners were somewhere they could find a broadband connection.  Even those who had subscribed to voice mail or call forwarding could leave announcements and access their voice mail.

Phone numbers are a great way to find people – so long as something happens besides an out-of-service announcement when you call the number.

But the majority of refugees – as almost always is the case – were not well to do, did not have cell phones or VoIP, and hadn’t ordered premium voice mail or call forwarding as part of their phone service.  They were unreachable.

Jeff Pulver and I and a number of others tried to find a way to get voice mail or at least call forwarding set up for people in the immediate aftermath of Katrina (Stuart Henshall of Skype Journal had the original idea).  Many companies volunteered to help including several VoIP companies who offered to set up free VM accounts immediately.  But we couldn’t find any way to get the numbers ported from the local phone companies – mainly BellSouth – in time to do any good.

To be fair local phone companies had plenty to do in the aftermath of the catastrophe.  And it was probably naïve to think we could change the telco tradition of holding tight to phone numbers overnight during an emergency.

There is no reason why American refugees – whether from natural catastrophe or from terrorist attack – ever have to be unreachable again.  There is still time before the next hurricane season begins to REQUIRE that telcos provide the basic emergency service of temporary voice mail and/or call forwarding in the same way they are required to provide E911 service.  There is NOT time before the next hurricane season to wait for ponderous studies of the whole Katrina fiasco.

Pulver.com and Evslin Consulting have filed a petition with the Federal Communications Commission requesting the FCC to require that all phone companies which are obligated to provide E911 service also be required to provide call forwarding and voice mail any time a phone line is out for twelve hours or more for any purpose including the case where an evacuation makes it impossible for someone to get to the line.  This can all be done with existing phone technology – either the old kind (PSTN) or VoIP.

All major local phone companies already provide this service at an incremental price and many VoIP providers include it free with basic service.  We are requesting that this service be available to everyone in the case of an emergency so that a drowned phone line need not mean an unreachable family.

Obviously preparatory work is needed:  people need to know they have this service and how to use it if they should be forced from their homes or if their local phone system is disabled.  They have to have PINs to make sure that the right people are setting up voice mail announcements on the right phone.  They have to have a way to retrieve their PINs if they lose them or forget them in an evacuation.  None of this is rocket science; it just needs to be done.

So part of our petition urges the FCC to make sure that telcos take all the necessary preparatory steps so that they and their subscribers are ready for the next emergency.  Carriers will be required to self-certify but, in an emergency, if it turns out they do not provide the proper emergency services, they must immediately comply with subscriber requests to port the phone numbers to any carrier able to provide the required service.

The remedies we’ve asked for won’t bring a damaged phone system back up faster – but they will mitigate the effect of the outage on families who would otherwise have become unreachable.  These remedies will both spare families the anguish and indecision of not knowing where each other are and allow rescue workers to concentrate on finding those who are truly in danger rather than just out of touch.  People will be more likely to comply with evacuation orders when they know that they will still be in communication.

Both Jeff and I welcome comments on this approach and will be sure to let you know how to make yourself heard as part of the FCC process whether you agree with the approach we’ve taken or not.

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» Pulver Proposes Post-Disaster Preparedness from IP Democracy
VoIP pioneer Jeff Pulver and tech veteran Tom Evslin have submitted a petition to the FCC asking the Commission to require phone companies, or at least telcos that are obligated to offer e911 service, to provide call forwarding and... [Read More]


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