Tragedy and Telecom

How the Bush Administration's antiregulation stance contributed to the post-Katrina communications collapse -- and what should be done now

By Leo Hindery Jr.

The biblical-level destruction from Katrina -- 90,000 square miles devastated, 1 million people suddenly homeless, a similar number unemployed, and a horrendous death toll -- has revealed another tragedy that will soon demand a different kind of attention: The total breakdown in communication during a time of extreme crisis.

With respect to its effect on infrastructure, Katrina gave much more notice of impending disaster than the September 11 attacks. And yet, when the hurricane hit land, we saw -- four years after 9/11 -- the same meltdown of service, but this time over 90,000 square miles.

When our citizens found themselves drowning in their own homes and nursing homes or, three days later, still marooned on their rooftops, they had no way to call and no one to call for help.


  Thanks to the seminal 1996 Telecommunications Act, in the days before Katrina the people of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama were receiving cheaper and better telecom and related video services than before. But then these services fell apart.

It turns out we have developed a budding broadband system that, in times of disaster, doesn't work as well, interrupts more easily, and comes back on line later than the good old copper-wire system. And "emergency preparedness" apparently doesn't mean that in an emergency you can actually dial 911.

The 1996 Telecom Act has taken our country exactly where we wanted it to. But thanks to the extreme nonregulatory bias of the current government (and despite its having had four years to learn from the 9/11 horror), it's clear the Bush Administration, the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Homeland Security Dept. have thrown the baby out with the bath water when it comes to telecom emergency preparedness. And if you happen to live in flood-ravaged New Orleans, this particular metaphor is simply too painful to ponder.


  So should the devastated 90,000 square miles end up, after some federal subsidy, with state-of-the-art broadband and wireless communications when the rebuilding is finished? You bet they should. And because having these capabilities will greatly hasten economic and employment recovery, some government backing of this effort is entirely appropriate.

Should Bell South (BLS ) and every other telephone-service provider in the area (and throughout the country) be unshackled from local franchise requirements that continue to favor the incumbent cable operators to the detriment of true broadband competition? You bet.

Should FEMA be an essential participant in the design of a new regionwide emergency preparedness system? Absolutely -- as should the governors and the congressional delegations of the states affected.


  Should the Bush Administration adopt for telecom a regulatory posture that better takes into account the common good and welfare instead of its current "no regulation unless we really have to" stance? It must -- around such matters as quality standards, universal service and emergency preparedness -- if it is ever to be an Administration "of all the people" (and not of just the K Street lobbyists), and if it really does want those 911 calls answered.

And after the tragic battle for New Orleans, should the Bush Administration, in the realms of telecom reform and infrastructure development, abandon the mantra it borrowed from Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform: "I don't want to abolish government -- I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drown it in the bathtub"?

As to this last question, knowing what you now know, what do you think?


Leo Hindery Jr. is a former CEO of telecom carrier Global Crossing, has been active as a Democratic fund-raiser and organizer, and worked on Dick Gephardt's Presidential campaign in 2004. He's currently managing partner of InterMedia Partners, a private investment firm. He's also a former CEO of the YES Network and CEO of TCI and its successor, AT&T Broadband

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.