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August 26, 2006

Will at&t Voicemail Work in an Emergency?

According to a survey of Gulf Coast residents commissioned by at&t, the most desired technology during a natural disaster is a voice mailbox (54% of respondents). However, at&t apparently doesn’t have confidence in its own ability to keep existing voicemail working in a catastrophe. 

It would be nice if at&t would listen to these hurricane survivors and stop opposing the petition that Jeff Pulver and I filed with the FCC requiring that voice mail be available on all landlines during a disaster.  But don’t hold your breath. 

The press release announcing the survey results has a long list of things people ought to do to get ready for a disaster.  #2 says:

“Prepare for the Worst-Case Scenario. During natural disasters, such as hurricanes or flooding, wireline services can be interrupted for extended periods of time because of damage caused by high winds or flooding. Wireless phones may serve as alternative means of communication.”

No mention here of the fact that a phone NUMBER can remain operative even if the phone LINE is down IF voicemail has been provided on the number.  Way down on the list at #7 is the statement:

“Know Where to Meet. Agree on a physical and virtual meeting place such as a voice mailbox or online chat site.”

But, of course, this won’t work unless voicemail is installed on a telephone number.  For some reason at&t does NOT suggest ordering voicemail service as a step in emergency preparedness.  Would have thought at least that the survey results create a marketing opportunity for this lucrative service even if at&t is unwilling to provide it to everyone on  a standby basis in an emergency as we have requested.

at&t may not have much confidence in the survivability of its voicemail capability.  In their response to our petition they say:

“Finally, the petition fails to address the very real likelihood that in a disaster impacting a large geographic area, such as a hurricane or earthquake, the platform supporting a provider’s voice mail service may be damaged along with the rest of the provider’s network, thus preventing the provider from fulfilling the mandatory voice mail proposal suggested by petitioners.”

Huh?  Is at&t actually locating voicemail storage anywhere near the switches serving the subscribers who own the mailboxes?  That would be really dumb.  Good thing for the FCC to look at.  Good case for truth in labeling if so because it means that the emergency facility MOST DESIRED BY USERS ACCORDING TO at&t is NOT reliable in an emergency.

If this is the case, they should tell people NOT to rely on this facility since the survey makes clear that people think voicemail WILL work (and, if this is the case, at&t or any other phone company with this problem should immediately reengineer).  If this is not the case, if voicemail really has been engineered as it should be so that it won’t be affected by the same catastrophe as the primary switch, then at&t should stop using this as an excuse NOT to provide emergency voicemail on all downed lines.

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