The role of the telecommunications industry as part of disaster response and recovery was a focus of the VON (Voice on the Net) conference in Boston this week, where speakers and participants also touched on the companion topic of user rights in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Talks from an executive from BellSouth Corp., the chief executive officer of Vonage Holdings Corp. and those who have Web logs that were active in Katrina’s aftermath focused on the telecommunications industry’s emergency preparedness and response. BellSouth is a key service provider in the affected area and after having communications cut off for two days, and the first outgoing call made by someone from the New Orleans mayor’s office was on a Vonage softphone account. I think it would be a disservice to the industry to say VOIP runs no matter what — it requires the same infrastructure.Text

The hurricane devastated the northern Gulf Coast of the U.S. three weeks ago, and its rains caused levee breaches that swamped nearly all of New Orleans. Telecommunications were hampered at least initially, but played a crucial role in linking survivors to loved ones, as did the Internet, where blogs were key in conveying information, speakers noted in the first two days of the conference.

Some of the talks tended to laud VOIP (voice over Internet Protocol) for its ability to withstand disasters better than traditional telecommunications, but Bill Smith, the chief technology officer of BellSouth discounted that notion, calling it a “horrible disservice.”

“VON is a wonderful thing, VOIP is a wonderful thing … but it has to run on something,” he said, adding that the biggest problem with communications in the affected states was the loss of power. “I think it would be a disservice to the industry to say VOIP runs no matter what — it requires the same infrastructure.”

And even being well prepared with a robust infrastructure and technologies that are able to be more quickly recover provides no guarantee. Since Hurricane Andrew flattened parts of south Florida in August 1992, BellSouth has contended with the aftermath of 22 hurricanes, Smith said. “We have a lot of experience dealing with hurricanes, but this one was not like any we’ve ever seen.”

Despite his cautions, industry experts at VON conveyed the opinion that advanced telecommunications technologies can, and should, be more widely offered by carriers and that the industry overall can do more both in times of emergency and in ordinary times. Even if the levees aren’t going to be safe from a category 5 storm, the phone networks can be safe from a category 5 storm and because they can be, they should be.Text

“Even if the levees aren’t going to be safe from a category 5 storm, the phone networks can be safe from a category 5 storm and because they can be, they should be,” said consultant Tom Evslin.

Telephone numbers are simply numbers and are not dependent on a physical phone line to function, although the industry often behaves as though the old model of an operator plugging a line into a specific connection on a central board still exists, he said.

If service providers all offered voice mail as part of services, then as soon as users could get to a working phone — which wasn’t that long after the storm passed for many people — they could record a message such as, “We’re all fine, we’re in a shelter in San Antonio [Texas]. Leave a message here and we’ll get back to you,” Evslin said. We have a lot of experience dealing with hurricanes, but this one was not like any we’ve ever seen.Text

“We’ve got to remember,” he said, “that the customer owns the number,” echoing a sentiment linked to the rights of users.

Such concerns are also being discussed at Vonage, whose chief executive officer, Jeffrey Citron, issued a “broadband bill of rights” at the conference.

Among its tenets are that users have: the right to connect any device they want to a network; the right to send and receive data packets the network of their service provider; the right to access anything they want over the Internet so long as it is legal; the right to privacy online and in telecommunications; the right to high-quality broadband that actually reaches the speeds advertised by providers.

Users should have the right to equipment that achieves speeds of at least 1M bit, Citron said, acknowledging that he doesn’t know if that’s the right number to aim for, but that it would be better than the 80K bps (bits per second) or 100K bps that users often experience. “That’s not broadband,” he said. “That’s just a little above current dial-up.”

Citron and Evslin were among the speakers who urged the industry to play a key role in preparing for the “next” emergency, with Evslin noting that disasters are inevitable and telecommunications providers can do more to both prepare and respond.

But with Hurricane Rita moving in on Texas and expected to be a major storm when it makes landfall later this week, the industry might instead find itself in a reprise.

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