Outgoing FCC chairman Julius Genachowski is calling for an emergency, private network in times of emergency for the city of Boston. In an op-ed penned for the MIT Technology Review with Harvard internet law professor Jonathan Zittrain, Genachowski makes the case for Boston to be the "first city where these networks are operational" in the wake of the bombings at the Boston Marathon in April.
"We can start with an idea that needs no additional technology," they write, going on to describe open Wi-Fi access points such as those available at Starbucks, "or cell subscribers who get Wi-Fi "off-load" from their service providers," networks which "remain operational even if cellular voice and data towers are out or overloaded." They go on to describe how these networks could be pre-configured for times of emergency so that "their owners to quickly fling their digital doors wide in times of trouble, channeling a surge of traffic through broadband with a capacity naturally greater than that of cellular networks." They liken this sharing of networks in emergencies to the desire to donate blood or hand out bottled water, helping fellow citizens and first responders.
Additionally, they argue that laptops and smartphones two-way radios could be bound together in ad hoc networks, creating usable service "even if no one within it had access to the broader Internet." For example, they argue, "imagine seeing your phone’s signal bars drop to zero. Instead of "No service," the phone could fall back to "Connected to local network." In a crisis, Genachowski and Zitrain write, such limited access to texting or Facebook could be critical.
"Natural disasters and crises aren't going to go away," they conclude, adding that the proposals they're making will not preclude the need for the FCC, other agencies, and the private sector to continue to work towards fully functional, scalable solutions. But, they argue, " mainstream consumer hardware and software can become a foundation for resilient interaction among people during a crisis and an innovative part of the solution to this very real challenge." Genachowski stepped down from his position as chairman of the FCC in mid-May after holding the position for four years.