Should Telcos Provide Free Voicemail As Disaster Relief?

from the seems-like-a-decent-idea dept

We’ve all heard the stories: whenever there’s any kind of disaster, phones (both landlines and mobile) become pretty much useless. The latest example where this was seen was with the bombings in Mumbai, India — but it’s a story that’s been seen many times before. Following Hurricane Katrina, former telco exec Tom Evslin and VoIP pioneer Jeff Pulver started talking about a simple way to at least minimize this problem. They suggested to the FCC that telcos should simply set up free voicemail accounts for those whose phone lines were impacted by the disaster. It’s a relatively simple plan. Basically, phone numbers that are unreachable will automatically go to a voicemail account. If the person associated with the phone number can access a phone somewhere, he or she can leave a message letting everyone know how they are. Family and friends can then easily leave messages, rather than repeatedly trying to contact a phone number that is unreachable. It would be easy enough for this all to take place far away from the disaster area, so calls could be routed elsewhere, also minimizing the influx of phone calls to an area. Pulver and Evslin worked out the details and realized this was incredibly inexpensive to implement, and figured it made sense for the FCC to mandate it. Not surprisingly, though, the telcos immediately trashed the proposal, claiming it was prohibitively expensive — though Pulver and Evslin don’t see how that’s possible. On Thursday, Evslin and Pulver spent the day at the FCC, trying to talk to folks there about the plan. It sounds like they found interest and guidance, but it still sounds like there’s an awful lot to be done, and the telcos don’t seem willing to go along. If the original calculations are correct, it really isn’t that expensive to provide — and the goodwill gained (and the lack of news stories trashing the telcos for having no service at all) seems like it would greatly outweigh the cost.


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Comments on “Should Telcos Provide Free Voicemail As Disaster Relief?”

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32 Comments
MBHQ says:

The Bad News is: It's Inexpensive

Of course, this seems just as reflexively obtuse as RIAA, MPAA, et. al. No doubt the telcos woud (as usual) rather spend millions to fight.
Otherwise, subscribers will wonder why they’ve been getting charged opportunistic rates for voicemail as an “enhanced service”.

Could be cheaper for the telcos to fight this now, no matter how cynical and callous it would be, than to defend against a future class action seeking retroactive vocemail rate relief.

Apparently the telcos don’t mind making their own lives that much more dificult by opting to overtax and waste whatever disaster recovery capacity they’d have.

There’d be some fumbling initially in defining a default password scheme for people who did not have voicemail before the outage, but that’s easily handled in advance through publicity/education.

Wonder how many of those subscribers would decide to keep voicemail (at a reasonable charge) after having seen how much anxiety and uncertainty it saved their families…

Another golden opportunity to do well by doing good, rejected by greed, gall, and the sense of entitlement engendered by regulated monopoly “thinkers”.

MBHQ says:

Re: No

Yes it is, and it should remain so. My point is that as capitalists and marketing managers they’re shortsighted and inept.

Additionally, as the word gets out about this latest retreat from the”public interest, convenience, or necessity”, they’ll find themselves fighting yet another rearguard action to defend a situation that could have been avoided.

Republican Gun (user link) says:

Short Sighted - Yes

Yes they are short sited and yes it would be a great idea, but what the two good-doers didn’t calculate in their theory is that with every Federal regulation comes expense to administrate it.

Administration of federal laws requires, Attorneys, CPA’s, auditors, and support staff that would require a company to be compliant and they wouldn’t be cheap?

slide23 says:

Re: Short Sighted - Yes

I agree with the comment below (if you are reading the comments in threaded form) that the telco industry is hardly an example of capitalism. Utilities are the some of the worst of what mixed economies have to offer (as we are witnessing here on TD everyday), but that is another topic entirely.

If the telcos had half a lick of forward vision, they would fight the legislation and simultaneously pull an end run around the FCC by doing this themselves, claiming credit for the idea, and reaping a windfall of good will. They can claim that voicemail has all manner of costs (puh-lease), but most people will only see the benevloent John Q. Public face of the telcos. It’s a win-win situation.

But I kind of like watching the monopolistic a-holes flop and flail, despite trying to get the government to protect their outdated business models. THAT is capitalism in action.

Jim Grey (profile) says:

Usability of your average voicemail system

One thing not being considered is that many people struggle with technology like voicemail. So even if the telcos were to grant free voicemail to disaster victims, I wager that a good percentage of those people would not be able to figure out how to use the voicemail system. This is, in part, because voicemail setup is done seldom, even by experienced voicemail users, and requires some training or how-to documentation. This is also, in part, because no two voicemail systems are alike — to delete a message on my cell phone’s voicemail it’s 7, but to do it on my work phone’s voicemail it’s *3.

Finally, after a disaster, how do you validate that a person calling his own home phone number is really that person, and therefore authorized to set up the voicemail account? You wouldn’t want it left to chance; some yahoo like me could start dialing numbers in that region and setting up voicemail boxes on other peoples’ phones, thus locking them out. Preventing this would involve putting a system in place to validate the users, which would involve at least some additional programming of the voicemail systems and probably a call center.

In other words, even though this sounds like a great idea, its implementation is not trivial.

jim

I, for one says:

Re: Usability of your average voicemail system

I think you’ve misunderstood that Jim. These voicemail boxes would be set up automatically on phones of people who have been in a disaster area. They would auto-configure and then be removed immediately after the emergency. No need for access validation.

All you do is make the emergency number be [9111.your.existing.phone.number] or something. Everybody gets to know the system and all parties (potential disaster victim, relatives, and police/services can easily use it). How would they know who was in the disaster, which phones to enable with the temporary service? By the phones GPS location or last known tracking position relative to the disaster. And its not a bad idea. It really could save lives.

“Not surprisingly, though, the telcos immediately trashed the proposal, claiming it was prohibitively expensive ” – Lying bastards. I could implement this in less than 1000 lines of code tomorrow. All the existing infrastructure is there, the VM servers, the drives, the routing, the coordinates. Some PR suit who hasn’t the first clue about software or the cost of anything came out with that statement and it is utter bollocks. I mean – fine admit you don’t want to do it, admit you don’t want to help poeple out when there’s no profit in it. But stop your bloody lying. We aren’t stupid!

BHL says:

MBHQ hsa a point.

Organizing a comunities response to an emergency ( or potential emergency) is a perfectly legitimate governmental duty.

As long as the requirements are are universaly applied (i.e. ALL telcos must provide this service as part of their emergency response plan) it just becomes part of the cost of doing business.

The refusal to cooperate is just managerial laziness.

Anonymous Coward says:

2 points to consider. If a person could get to a location and call in to check voicemail, why couldn’t they just call their loved ones instead of checking messages?

Also, would Mr. Pulver consider Vonage a telco? Did he call up Mr. Citron to ensure that Vonage is already doing this? Maybe use some of that IPO money that they both received? If so, kudos, although I see this as more of a branding thing than any actual benefit to their customers.

chris (profile) says:

1 counter point to consider

AC said:

“If a person could get to a location and call in to check voicemail, why couldn’t they just call their loved ones instead of checking messages?”

because, in order to talk to your loved ones, you need to get a hold of them. the nice thing about voice mail is that the communication is one way and is not synchronous. like email, i can make contact when you are not available, and you can reply when i am not available. here’s how it works:

i put important information in the greeting and everyone who calls me can hear it:

“i can’t come to the phone cuz a hurrucaine blew my house up. i am not dead, but i am in the superdome, so leave me a message and i will get back to you at some point”

then poeple leave messages at their convenience and i can listen to them next time i get to a phone:

“this is your mother, i am relieved that you are not dead. take care and tell the kids i love them.”

people do this in non-emergency situations with thier work voicemail.

WirelessGuy says:

AC is right

The problem with this is that getting to a VM box is one thing, but then having the trunks available to others is another. Most of the time the issue isn’t with local calling after an emergency, local trunks are local and most of the time not damaged. The real issue is getting outside via LD trunks typically. That is why people have a hard time getting out to their family and then the family getting back in.

So AC is right in that if someone can get to their VM to leave the message, then there is a chance they could have made an outside call to their family. But, there is no VM in a phone. I am not sure if that is what I, for one was alluding to. These are in the switch.

After Katrina T-Mobile had about 20% of the sites on air that had generators. We then put up some temp sites to give coverage to the worst part of town in the CBD for emergency services. 70% of the city could not make a wireless call. If you cannot make a call, then your GPS signal would not get passed up to the network. We cannot track people without their consent and we don’t do it 100% of the time. So in order to access this system outside, AC is correct in that you would need to have some sort of validation code that you are the party making the message.

This is a great idea IF they move the system outside of the area affected. Make companies put these in Iowa where they won’t be affected by the disaster so that people can make calls to that system rather than congest the already battered system in the disaster zone. The key would be IF people can make their message then everyone would be able to access that via routing the calls to the messaging system.

A better method might be to use SMS messages and people then could post these to a central database where people could access via the internet. SMS uses the signalling trunks and goes to the switch then out SS7 links. These are low speed and do not require LD trunks (for the most part) and are more likely to handle the capacity in a disaster. People could also use email to do the same thing.

I like the concept, but the companies are just beaten to death on these mandated processes that really have decent structure but they get little to no input. The FCC is also trying to mandate now a method to deploy an emergency alert system on all telco systems that will be difficult to implement, just not impossible. We don’t hate to do these things, we just would rather work together to find a method that works, that is funded and will truly benefit everyone and WORK!!!!!

Anonymous Coward says:

” I could implement this in less than 1000 lines of code tomorrow. All the existing infrastructure is there, the VM servers, the drives, the routing, the coordinates.”

Sigh. But your code couldn’t implement the additional hardware needed to deploy and additional hardware WOULD be needed. And the manpower time and labor cost needed to do it would be considerable even if the hardware cost wasn’t. And this isn’t just a case of plugging in an extra drive or two and you’re good to go. And their “Tiger Direct” cost estimate is wacked. Think large capacity SCSI.

A noble idea, but after all is said and done, we’re talking about building in huge excess capacity on the premise that it might be needed for brief periods. They currently do not have the capacity to implement VM for even a simple majority of their existing base.

Sanguine Dream says:

Good point



Finally, after a disaster, how do you validate that a person calling his own home phone number is really that person, and therefore authorized to set up the voicemail account? You wouldn’t want it left to chance; some yahoo like me could start dialing numbers in that region and setting up voicemail boxes on other peoples’ phones, thus locking them out. Preventing this would involve putting a system in place to validate the users, which would involve at least some additional programming of the voicemail systems and probably a call center.

In other words, even though this sounds like a great idea, its implementation is not trivial.

jim

I agree that implementing such a system would be difficult however I highly doubt those are the reasons the telcos in question are fighting this. They are whining about “unfair” competition otherwise knonwn as “I’m gonna lose some of the market share that garuntees that I a make in insane amount of money for doing nothing but lobbying to politicians and thinking of ways to stop new ideas.”

Just like the Force the reason is just as important as the action.

Anonymous Coward says:

Hey, Sanguine Dream, if the cost and effort was low, as some are contending it should be, the telcos could easily spin this into a tangible reason to keep/have a land line.

But if they did anything voluntarily it would take VoIP providers off the hook. No reason to do that. Also many tax reasons not to do it unless forced. Nothing is simple if it involves the telcos.

Theoden says:

Missing Opportunities

All of the hardware / access / system issues aside, why can’t someone in the telcos see the profit to be made from something like this?

“Hey there, displaced person, did you see how wonderful it was to have voice mail when you needed it? For a small monthly fee we can make that part of your regular phone service…”

On the other hand I can ssee them deciding to keep the service on these lines and charging for them unless the user decides to cancel..

WirelessGuy says:

Re: Missing Opportunities

If everyone is mandated to provide this, then there is no product to show that you are unique. And what really is special???? People get free VM on all wireless accounts and anyone now could call in, change their VM prompt to state this same thing WITHOUT mandating some duplicate feature. The issue is for the wireline people who sell VM as a premium service, they are the ones who really are going to complain. For wireless companies, we could do this is a week with little help from anyone.

The biggest problem is that VM systems are limited in account sizes and storage. They are simple PBX systems that are not designed to be highly robust. If the whole world started pounding one of these during a disaster, then they would likely have trunking issues and a lot of busy time outs. The cost would be in providing some level of acceptable grade of service where people would be able to use the system. Like I stated before, if this is on the customers existing account in the market with the disaster, it doesn’t do much good.

I, for one says:

Lets call it 20 million with labor costs

Ok, maybe I’m being naive. You lost me on some of the TLAs there Wireless Guy, but I follow along mostly.

On disk cost – Worst case scenario of 20,000 people leaving a 2 minute voice mail message each at 64kbps ( I know mobile uses better compression), lets call it 40,000 * 500kB. Double that for minimal redundancy (40GB per node) and multiply by say 100,000 local VM nodes spread over all states. I’m pulling figures out my ass here, but even using the most expensive SCSI disks at $2.5/GB that comes out at 10 million. It’s small change to the telcos right? They could probably add on the extra capacity on the next upgrade cycle.

I mean how long does it take for a rack monkey to fix in a new box? I can do it in minutes including cabling and some basic testing. So lets very generously double that cost for labor costs = 20 million.

AT&T reported revenue of $7 billion in the first quarter of 2005!

(source Google)

My (HUGE) assumption was that the hypothetical disaster did not involve damage to the telephone infrastructure itself. But in the context of Katrina example – yes any sort of robustness built over and above the existing system is going to cost massively.

Slide23 says it best actually – that if they took the damn initiative themselves instead of retorting with a reactionary negative “no can do” attitude it would be a win win win scenario. Good PR for hardly any cost, government and FCC off their backs, more VM sales.

WirelessGuy says:

Re: Lets call it 20 million with labor costs

One VM platform can support @175,000 users. These cost a good chunk of change, a bit more than just hard drives. Those are pretty pricy too.

Your problem is in the software from the vendor, the support, the trunking, the space, etc…If it was a desktop in your apartment, then yah we are talking peanuts.

If you are lucky, you can get VM plaform costs down to about $5 per person. Last time I checked Cingular had 50,000,000 subs. That would cost about $2.5 Billion in infrastructure alone. Now mandate that for 280 Million people. I don’t think you understand the huge impact of these items in network costs.

Yes, the people in the disaster area might number in the hundreds of thousands, but it is the fact that you would have to support EVERYONE to have access anywhere there could be a disaster. Put Texas, Cali, NY, OK, Fla, Tn, Chicago, hell where would you not need it? ND? SD? They have blizards….

Scale man, think scale.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

yeah, wouldn’t want the telcos to actually spend all the money from the universal access fees on actual services for their customers

AC- Last time I checked the big 7 carriers are planning on spending $27 Billion over the next 2 years. I think we spend enough on CALEA, E911, WNP, COLID and dealing with people who want everything for free because they pay a $0.50 USF.

I mean, last time I checked we were a for-profit organization with share holders. Please forgive us for trying to actually make a profit for those people.

kantankerus says:

the potential for lawsuits

is the biggest reason i would say NO, i have to agree with the telcos

1] something happens to the hardware the telco uses

2] someone can’t access their voicemail

people just wouldnt only accept the use in cata’s only

so, lightning strike the tele pole in front of my house, ismt that a natural cata ???? shouldnt that also be covered

and the blending of the technologies makes it even more problematic

no, it would be far to complex, and people in thei infinite wisdom and desire to throw everything into 1 basket make it so

and i dont even want to think of the government intervention that would follow !!!

although it would make it a lot easier for GW to monitor the calls….lol

a pandora box…

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