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July 14, 2006

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.

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