It Takes a Disaster

In the four years since 9/11, the US has spent billions upon billions of dollars on homeland security and disaster preparedness. The vast majority of that money has gone to the traditional vendors and service providers. At the same time, the government has thrown road blocks in front of promising decentralized communications technologies, like low-power FM radio and voice over IP.

What’s the connection?

It turns out that these new technologies may be our best hope for building a disaster-resistent communications system. In the hectic hours after Hurricane Katrina hit, it was a Vonage VOIP line that let the Mayor of New Orleans communicate with the outside world after conventional phone lines went dead. Meshned wireless networks proved essential for emergency communication at Ground Zero after the 9/11 attacks. And now, word comes that regulators are looking to expand authorization for low-power FM stations as a way to improve resiliency of broadcast communications in the event of a disaster.

If only our policy-makers had been so enlightened before the disaster hit. The regulators and Congress need to recognize that emerging decentralized communications technologies aren’t a threat to the network; they may its salvation in times of crisis. If this is what it taks to clear some of the roadblocks to innovation, so be it. The benefits of things like meshed wireless, VOIP, and low-power FM will be felt even when there isn’t a disaster.