Katrina spurs federal action on VoIP

Senators say the aftermath of the deadly hurricane shows that Net phones are important and changes to the law are needed.

Anne Broache Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Anne Broache
covers Capitol Hill goings-on and technology policy from Washington, D.C.
Anne Broache
3 min read
Hurricane Katrina's thrashing of communications networks has amplified the need for Congress to take action on Net phone policy, senators said Thursday.

At a hearing convened by the Senate Commerce Committee, senators pledged to take steps to ensure that all communications networks, including voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, can connect their customers to the 911 system. One such bill was introduced in May.

"I want to underscore how complete and total the implosion of communications seemed to be," said Sen. David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican who was in the ravaged state during the storm. "It puts the sort of normal process of rumors floating around...through the stratosphere, because all of a sudden there's no way to get real, accurate information on the ground."

The "robust, unique features" of Net phones helped ease the communications logjam when people could find power sources, said Sen. John Sununu, a New Hampshire Republican. According to the Voice on the Net Coalition, which represents VoIP interests, Net phones lines have been used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Red Cross, the Army, hospitals and evacuees at the Houston Astrodome in the storm's aftermath.

Locating local internet providers

But committee members criticized the Federal Communications Commission for requiring VoIP providers to cut off all customers who don't acknowledge possible limitations to 911 access. That deadline was most recently extended to Sept. 28 but could still leave thousands without service.

"Their safety may be in much greater jeopardy, having lost their service," Sununu said.

Locating local internet providers

Without VoIP, officials in New Orleans could have been stripped of all means of communication, Sununu added. A Vonage representative told senators at the hearing that the city's mayor and police chief had relied on his company's VoIP service to talk with people, including President Bush, outside the region.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin didn't give a clear indication as to whether the deadline would be moved. "We have tried to provide some additional flexibility on that," he said at the hearing. "We continue to extend that deadline as we see carriers make progress."

The storm knocked out more than 3 million telephone lines, 1,000 cellular sites and 38 emergency call centers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, Martin told the senators. Some of the emergency call centers were physically wiped out, and others hadn't been programmed to route their calls to centers that remained up and running. It is critical, he said, for all communications providers, including Net phone companies, to devise back-up plans to prevent disruptions during extended power outages.

Martin made three major suggestions, though he didn't specify who would implement them: Set up a more comprehensive alert system, which would use the Internet and other technological advances to reach as many people simultaneously as possible; provide first responders with interoperable equipment--so-called smart radios--that allows communication across various jurisdictions and frequencies; and take advantage of IP-based technologies, which can act as a backup, rerouting telecommunications traffic.

Senators at Thursday's hearing also pledged to get to work on a pending bill that would free up radio spectrum for use by emergency workers.

Strongly advocated by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the provision would also result in shifting all television broadcasts from the analog spectrum, which first responders use, to the digital spectrum by 2009. Sen. Ted Stevens, the Alaska Republican who chairs the Commerce Committee, said the bill would be marked up in late October.