More than a year after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast region, 750,000 evacuees are still scattered across the US and communication remains fragmented. Members of the telecom vanguard, Jeff Pulver and Tom Evslin, believe there's a simple and relatively inexpensive way to restore some continuity to the post-disaster communication picture-something as mundane as voicemail.
In fact, they feel so strongly about this that they've petitioned the FCC to make it a requirement that phone companies provide temporary emergency voicemail accounts and automatic call forwarding for customers whose numbers have been inaccessible for at least 12 hours during and after an emergency situation.
It seems they aren't alone in their thinking, since 54% of the Katrina survivors surveyed by AT&T cited voicemail as the technology they most wanted access to during a natural disaster. In fact, hundreds of thousands of people lost access to their phone numbers when Katrina wiped out the physical infrastructure of their landline networks. Many lost touch with loved ones during the evacuation and found out it could take months, even half a year, to re-establish contact. Had an emergency voicemail system been in place, even if the phone lines were down, voicemail messages could have been left and retrieved from remote locations.
An extraordinary amount of resources were poured into helping disconnected families find each other again. This included nearly 5,000 missing and unaccounted for children. The investigators' efforts were complicated by the enormous challenge of tracking down people who were constantly on the move from shelter to shelter and had no ready means of communication.
The phone companies' response to the petition has been less than enthusiastic and they've countered with a rebuttal that claims the costs to implement such an emergency system would be astronomical. Pulver and Evslin's response to the opposition puts forth a variety of data that seems to poke holes in the assertion that voicemail for disaster victims is too costly a proposition to consider. The duo contends that a mere penny-a-person increase in monthly charges could more than offset the cost incurred from implementing the proposed solution.
For the time being, the FCC has yet to make a decision, although their tendency to dismiss voip's potential for post-disaster communication does not bode well for the petition's success.
But other people are convinced, including the Mayor of New Orleans, who had his staff shuttled by military Humvee to the nearest Office Depot, where they requisitioned a number of voip phones. With those phones, the still available city-wide wireless internet connection, and an employee's Vonage account, the Mayor was able to communicate with the outside world for the first time in over 48 hours. This is important, because disaster response starts at the local level. Perhaps, even if the FCC chooses to deny the petition, local governments will rebuild their infrastructures to be less reliant on traditional wireline services, incorporating a range of innovative technologies that are more adaptable in a disaster.