I've noticed our blog has been a bit quiet the last few days. I suspect that has been in part due to the Labor Day holiday, but I believe it's also because it can be difficult to chat about telecom policy when the Mississippi delta region has been obliterated and hundreds of thousands are homeless. Many less narrowly focused blogs have done an excellent job of pointing out ways to help; I'll just add that my charity of choice in such situations is The Salvation Army, because they've proven to be very trustworthy with their spending and because my dad's a bell-ringer every Christmas. What else can we add to the dialogue? Perhaps just a look at what Hurricane Katrina has taught us about telecom and our dependence on it.
The Wall Street Journal today (subscription required) had an article titled "Phone Networks Fail Once Again in a Disaster." The implication was that after the failures of 9/11 and the blackout of 2003, we somehow should be avoiding these problems now. I'm no engineer, but I don't understand how a copper and fiber network could be expected to emerge unscathed when it and the power sources feeding it are underwater. To be fair, the WSJ notes some of the difficulties:
To BellSouth Corp., the region's dominant phone company and part-owner of cellular giant Cingular Wireless, Katrina posed a set of unique challenges: Many BellSouth employees trained to repair and maintain its networks became victims themselves. Some of the company's equipment in New Orleans is old and vulnerable to water damage; splices in its copper phone lines, for example, are covered with paper instead of protective plastic. And at its key New Orleans operations center, the building was threatened by reports of looters and employees had to be evacuated. BellSouth expects the hurricane damage will cost it $400 million to $600 million.
That's a lot of money. And they'll be spending it without having any real sense of what their future customer base will be, assuming some residents and employers will stay permanently relocated.
Wireless carriers are starting to rebuild, reports Dan Meyer in RCR Wireless News. Their services would have been most helpful during the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, but again, with all the blame being tossed around about preparedness, it's a bit hard to prepare a wireless network for a Category 4 hurricane and subsequent flood. One wireless service kept on trucking during the chaos -- ham radios. From a separate WSJ story:
With Hurricane Katrina having knocked out nearly all the high-end emergency communications gear, 911 centers, cellphone towers and normal fixed phone lines in its path, ham-radio operators have begun to fill the information vacuum. "Right now, 99.9% of normal communications in the affected region is nonexistent," says David Gore, the man operating the ham radio in the Monroe shelter. "That's where we come in."
Sometimes simpler technology is better. I've never had to reboot my TV, which is a pretty dumb device. But I have had to reboot my TiVo, which is a pretty smart device (but not smart enough to know I don't want it to record Telemundo soap operas). Still, I believe we as consumers welcome the added complexity. Smartphone users would never go back to using a plain cell phone. TiVo users certainly wouldn't want to go back to using a VCR. And I doubt wireless customers would turn in their cell phones for a ham radio.
So what we know is this -- we want communications services in a great variety. We want them as reliable as is humanly possible. We want multiple carriers competing with multiple offerings. And we want this for all Americans.
That's the easy part. The hard part will be figuring out how to invest properly to do that in the Delta. Will neighborhoods be abandoned? Will they be replicated in every detail? Those building or rebuilding networks will have to go where there are customers, and go where there is infrastructure investment occurring. That likely will be first in more affluent areas, where property owners will quickly get insurance money and begin to rebuild. Neighborhoods with high rental rates might be rebuilt more slowly, as landlords weigh their options. And all of this may depend on how many employers are providing jobs in the region.
This process will take time. Fortunately, it's not as urgent as providing these refugees in their own country some food, water and a safe place to sleep.