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Stop playing games before the next crisis hits

Hurricane Katrina highlighted holes in communications. Security expert Lee M. Zeichner asks whether lessons are being learned.

The Federal Communications Commission recently cleared the SBC Communications and Verizon Communications mergers, concluding that consumers will reap numerous rewards, including "improved network performance."

During the next month, state utility regulators will have their chance to review these mergers. After this year's hurricane season, let's hope they will consider not only price, competition and consumer protections but also the impact of these mergers on the nation's ability to effectively deal with crises.

Hurricane Katrina overwhelmed state and national response plans, leaving citizens without communications and other infrastructure support. But even with advance warning, presidential focus, and the full support of the Department of Defense, Floridians had spotty communications well after Wilma faded into the North Atlantic. The lack of communications services angered residents and frustrated local responders as they struggled to coordinate relief efforts.

Rather than addressing communications resilience head on, state leaders are heading for cover. The new mantra is that consumers must fend for themselves in the first 72 hours--which shrewdly shifts responsibility away from state and local support. In light of this shift, consumer groups and local chambers are asking their own hard questions: If consumers must fend for themselves in the first 72 hours, then--at the very least--shouldn't state governments find ways to help ensure our phones and other communications devices are working during that time?

Rather than addressing communications resilience head on, state leaders are heading for cover.

Public utility commissioners must step up to their responsibility to promote communications resilience in the event of an emergency. This will not be a simple task given the highly fractured nature of our nation's communications infrastructure. Hundreds of companies own the discrete components of the network, including long-haul telecommunications, last-mile facilities and wireless towers. Advances in technology, such as growth of the Internet, have added even more new players. To complicate matters, providers often lease facilities or move circuits--common business practices and important elements of the industry's growth, but a practice that fractures the networks even further.

This fracturing of our infrastructure over the past 20 years has seriously undermined national preparedness. For example, in order to respond effectively during or after a disaster, telecom owners and operators must collectively find ways to identify equipment failures, prioritize restoration schedules and deploy resources. With hundreds of owners, coordinating these essential efforts requires Herculean capabilities and takes time.

Just over 20 years ago, former President Reagan and his national security advisers met to discuss the national security implications of a fractured network, which they knew would result from Ma Bell's breakup. As they feared, rather than becoming more redundant with each new carrier offering service, our system has grown so complicated that we are impeding preparedness and harming security.

Let's be clear: No one today is seriously calling for a return to Ma Bell, and it is unlikely that we would have a sophisticated and advanced infrastructure with a single national provider. However, managing today's complex networks is highly labor-intensive and extraordinarily expensive.

This fracturing of our infrastructure over the past 20 years has seriously undermined national preparedness.

Our fractured approach to resilience and security leaves providers with few tools to understand and fix outages across the entire network with the speed that consumers have come to expect and, after a disaster, deserve.

The good news for public utility commissioners is that market consolidation is under way. The two mergers approved by the FCC will slow the fracturing of the infrastructure and bring a degree of command and control back to state and local emergency management authorities. At a minimum, the consummation of the mergers will provide the new companies with a clearer picture of their local, regional and national networks. Assuming these advantages are not undermined by divestiture requirements, the preparedness as well as consumer benefits will be substantial.

How state regulators address these developments remains an open issue. Communication needs, whether in the first 72 hours or otherwise, require state utility commissioners to carefully consider not only traditional regulatory issues, but also evolving preparedness needs. The 2005 hurricane season has, at least in the short term, expanded consumer needs to include emergency communications and resilience. The prospects of a pandemic flu outbreak or follow-on terrorist attacks reinforce these needs for the long term.

As they deliberate on these mergers, public utility commissioners should carefully consider how their decisions will support or undermine network performance in the event of a catastrophe.