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November 2006, Volume 9/ Number 11

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Communications Lifelines for Disaster Victims

By John Cimko

 

Jeff Pulver and Tom Evslin � two Internet trailblazers � have come up with an interesting idea. The FCC (News - Alert) should take a close look.

The federal government, they say, should require carriers to make sure that temporary alternative means of communication are set up quickly for people in areas hit by hurricanes or other disasters.

The problems caused when communications systems break down were starkly illustrated last year by Hurricane Katrina. In Katrina�s aftermath, the FCC has focused on finding better ways to provide disaster victims with alternate means of communications while the existing communications infrastructure is repaired.

Katrina was a wake-up call. Our landline and cellular systems are not robust enough to withstand the fury of a hurricane like Katrina and the massive flooding that follow in its wake. According to Ken Moran, the Director of the Office of Homeland Security at the FCC, Katrina knocked out more than three million phone lines in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. In testimony before a Senate committee a month after the hurricane, Moran said the wireline and wireless telecom networks had sustained enormous damage. Millions of telephone calls simply could not get through.






Even though telephone company workers labored mightily to restore service � and the FCC took extraordinary measures to clear away regulatory obstacles so that restoration work could proceed � hundreds of thousands of people were without service for extended periods.

The staggering impact of Katrina prompted the FCC in January to set up an �Independent Panel Reviewing the Impact of Hurricane Katrina on Communications� to aid the agency in figuring out what regulatory steps should be taken to ensure that people affected by hurricanes or other disasters have access to communications facilities.

This is where Messrs. Pulver and Evslin come in. In March, they filed a petition for rulemaking with the FCC, making a proposal to �mitigate the effects of long-term telephone outages in the event of natural disasters or other public crises.�

The petition argues that the FCC should require carriers obligated to provide E911 service to set up alternative communications service for customers affected by disaster-related outages. Carriers would be given a choice. They could activate a voicemail service that could be accessed by incoming callers dialing the customer�s phone number. This would enable customers who don�t have any outgoing phone service to receive incoming calls or record an outgoing voicemail message providing information about their status and location. Or, the carriers could provide expedited local number portability to customers whose service has been knocked out. This would enable customers to quickly port their phone numbers to alternative providers (including IP-based providers and providers outside the affected area) and thereby reestablish communications links with their families and friends.

Pulver and Evslin propose that the FCC should enforce the new rules by requiring carriers to certify their readiness to implement the alternative measures for temporary communications service. If a carrier can�t do this, then it should be treated in a manner similar to VoIP carriers that do not provide E911 access � that is, the carrier should be barred from marketing to new subscribers in areas where it can�t provide the required emergency service.

The FCC has sought comment on the Pulver-Evslin proposal and, in a separate action, has launched a rulemaking based on recommendations made by the Hurricane Katrina Independent Panel. This latter rulemaking seeks comment on rules for pre-positioning communications carriers and government agencies to better deal with disasters, for improving recovery coordination efforts, for improving the operability and interoperability of public safety communications to cope with disasters, and for improving the communication of emergency information to the public.

The communications industry has reacted negatively to the Pulver-Evslin proposal, arguing that it doesn�t make sense to impose additional requirements on carriers in the wake of a hurricane or other disaster. These requirements, they contend, would deflect network and human resources away from restoring full communications service. Carriers also say that it would be expensive to establish emergency voicemail for all customers nationwide, and that the proposed requirement for expedited porting alternatives has some downsides, including overloaded trunks, misdirected call routing, and potential billing disputes.

These criticisms don�t seem to offset two points supporting the Pulver-Evslin proposal. First, the proposed requirements are intrinsically sensible. Setting up an alternative voicemail system, or enabling customers to port their numbers to temporarily restore service, would help address one of the major problems exposed by the Katrina disaster. When disasters strike and people�s communications links are cut off, these links to family, friends, and sources of aid and assistance must be restored as rapidly as possible. While it�s true that efforts to restore permanent communications facilities should not be diverted or slowed down, there still should be an emphasis on taking measures that will provide disaster victims with immediate temporary communications arrangements.

Second, the Pulver-Evslin proposal recognizes that there is a role for government to play. The FCC should be proactive in working with the communications industry to set up plans and mechanisms to promote and accommodate temporary �fixes� to meet disaster victims� communications needs. The Pulver-Evslin proposal provides the FCC with an opportunity to accomplish these goals. IT

John Cimko served for 15 years at the FCC, and currently practices law at Greenberg Traurig LLP, an international, full-service law firm with more than 1,200 attorneys and governmental professionals. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and should not be attributed to his firm or its clients. For additional information, visit the firm�s website at www.gtlaw.com.

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