Managing Disasters with Internet Utilities

Fire season is here. Southern California fire departments and forestry services are urging residents to cut back brush on their properties and create “defensible space” Burbank is in a High Risk Period for Wildfirebetween the dry chaparral and their homes. Local news stations have spooled their resources to bring fire-related journalism to the population. And, we have already seen extreme technology such as DC-10s and 747s dumping insane amounts of Foscheck and water to quickly knock down fires which have popped up early in the season.

Southern California has fires, just as Kansas has tornadoes and Florida has hurricanes. Disasters are a natural part of nature and life. How we deal with natural disasters, our ability to survive and overcome challenges, and how we restore our communities defines our society.

Technology tools in place or being developed are having a major impact on our ability to react, respond, and recover from disaster. In the early stages of any disaster, communication is key to both survival and response. As nearly every person in the world is now tethered to a wireless device, the communication part isDefensible space to avoid brush fires becoming much easier, as even the most simple handset will support basic features such as text messaging and voice communications.

Getting the Message Out

Over the past 25 years the world has adopted Internet-enabled communications in a wide variety of formats for everything from email to citizen journalism. It is hard to find an event occurring anyplace in the world that is not recorded by a phone camera, YouTube video, blog, or real time broadcast.

In the 2008 Santa Barbara Tea Fire students from UC Santa Barbara used Twitter to warn fellow students and local residents to get out of the fire’s path as it raced through 2000 acres and more than 210 houses within the city limits. While it is not possible to put a statistic on the value of Twitter on evacuations and emergency notification, interviews following the fire with students revealed many had their initial notification through Twitter lists, and indicated they were able to get out of areas consumed in the fire (while screaming the heads off to others in the neighborhood to get out) before public safety officials were able to respond to the fire.

NOTE: I was driving through Santa Barbara (along the ‘101) during the initial phase of the fire, and can personally verify the fire moved really, really fast through the city. It looked like lava streaming out of a volcano, and you could see houses literally exploding as the fire hit them and moved through… I wasted no time myself getting through the city and on the way to LA.

Houses in Burbank's Verdugu MoutnainsThis article will not review all the potential technologies or software becoming available for emergency notifications, however we will look at the basic utility enabling all the great stuff happening to keep our citizens safe. The Internet.

Internet’s Utility is Now Bigger than Individuals and Companies

We all remember the infamous interview with Ed Whitcare, former CEO at AT&T.

Q: How concerned are you about Internet upstarts like Google, MSN, Vonage, and others?

A: How do you think they’re going to get to customers? Through a broadband pipe. Cable companies have them. We have them. Now what they would like to do is use my pipes free, but I ain’t going to let them do that because we have spent this capital and we have to have a return on it. So there’s going to have to be some mechanism for these people who use these pipes to pay for the portion they’re using. Why should they be allowed to use my pipes?

The Internet can’t be free in that sense, because we and the cable companies have made an investment and for a Google or Yahoo or Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes [for] free is nuts!

This statement, clearly indicates many in the internet network and service provider business do not yet get the big picture of what this “4th Utility” represents. The internet is not funny cat videos, porn, corporate web sites, or Flickr. Those features and applications exist on the Internet, but they are not the Internet.

Internet, broadband, and applications are a basic right of every person on the planet. The idea that two network administrators might have an argument at a bar, and subsequently consider the possibility of “de-peering” a network based on personalities or manageable financial considerations borders on being as irresponsible as a fire department going on strike during a California wildfire.

From http://www.wired.com/autopia/2009/09/evergreen-supertanker/As a utility, the Internet has value. Just as electricity, water, or roads. The utility must be paid for either before or after use, however the utility cannot be denied to those who need the service. When a city grows, and attracts more traffic, residents, and commerce, the intent is normally not to restrict or control the process, you build better roads, better infrastructure, and the people will eventually pay the price of that growth through taxes and utility bills. The 4th Utility is no different. When it gets oversubscribed, it is the carrier’s responsibility to build better infrastructure.

Disputes between network administrators, CFOs, or colocation landlords should never present a risk that SMS, Twitter, email, or other citizen journalism could be blocked, resulting is potential loss of life, property, and quality of life.

Communicating in the Dangerous Season

Fire season is upon us. As well as riots, traffic congestion, government crackdowns, take downs, and other bad things people need to know so they can react and respond. The Internet delivers CalTrans traffic information to smart phones, SMS, and web browsers to help us avoid gridlock and improve our quality of life. Twitter and YouTube help us understand the realities of a Tehran government crackdown, and Google Maps helps guide us through the maze of city streets while traveling to a new location.

We have definitely gone well past the “gee whiz” phase of the Internet, and must be ready to deal with the future of the Internet as a basic right, a basic utility, and essential component of our lives.

Net neutrality is an important topic – learn more about network neutrality, and weigh in on how you believe this utility should be envisioned.

About johnsavageau
Another telecom junkie who has been bouncing around the international communications community for most of the past 35 years.

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