Did you know that any cell phone in the US, whether it’s been “activated” or not with a calling plan, can make a 911 call. Know why? Because there is an overriding public interest in the provisioning of emergency services – that supercedes the interest of any individual corporation. Personally, I appreciate the availability of the service. I’ve never used it, but I’m glad it’s there.
Now, there’s been a ton of discussion recently around how that’s going to be done in the world of internet telephony – if your phone is a Voice over IP phone, how do you connect to 911 with the same service level guarantee as in the traditional telephony world (the FCC conveniently provides you with a Microsoft Word document detailing their thoughts on the matter)?
But what’s been happening around Hurricane Katrina makes it obvious there are far more profound issues lurking within that concept. The internet (and some if its shining assets), played an integral role in connecting people – to one another, and to some of the government’s emergency services (tragically, you’ll need Microsoft Internet Explorer). The internet is continuing to play a role in rescue operations. And there is no question the internet has firmly established itself as a social utility. That’s not an academic statement, it’s a personal one – for those of us with friends and family in or near the disaster area.
But this raises an interesting issue. Surely we’re at a point where if the network is a social utility, then we should collapse our views on emergency services and web services? And that similar to the imperative of making a 911 call from any cell phone, authorized or not, we must evolve our thinking to consider the nature of internet based emergency services. Will all services rely on a phone call? Surely that’s not the most scalable communication mechanism – a criticism no one can levy against the internet.
So at what point do we realize that critical information will come in all media types – telephonic, static (text message), or other time based content types (an IP phone call, or streaming audio or video segment)? If you saw what happened with FEMA’s preferential service to Microsoft customers, you know what I’m referring to – if the internet is a social utility, surely we should guarantee access to emergency services of all forms, and not simply lowest common denominator text messages. And surely the idea that one must have paid Microsoft – or Sun, Adobe or any other company – for the privilege of accessing emergency services – runs counter to the objective of bridging the digital divide (David Kirkpatrick has some interesting thoughts on the matter, too)?
If you’ve been watching what’s happening in Massachusetts, you begin to see the same issue playing out – as it has in Europe already. Should the creation, publication or distribution of public service information require one company’s technology? In my view, ABSOLUTELY NOT. Should we mandate that only open source products be relied upon? No – to me, it’s orthogonal to the discussion. Most folks have no clue how to build source code into something useful (a point Steve Lohr of the New York Times made clear).
What should we mandate? That all public information, that is, all data and services provided by governments, from ‘who to call’ lists to video broadcasts of critical information, leverage open, royalty free, freely sublicensable standards. The government should be silent, in my view, on the selection of technologies – that’s not their core competence or role. But they have a productive role to play in the standardization and provisioning of emergency services, and the guarantees around service levels and availability. In my view, they have to date underleveraged that role in driving the productive evolution of the network as a social utility.
In my view, Massachusetts is more than a little tussle – and FEMA’s screw up is more than an indiscretion – they represent the beginnings of radical change around the world, toward a truly comprehensive definition of Industry Standards. The types of standards that yield participation, and true competition, on a global scale.
And speaking of the redefinition of industry standards, please tune in to Sun’s network computing launch event on Monday morning – you can find details here. I’ll be joined by several leaders in the “industry standard” arena, and you’ll definitely get a sense for why Gartner just raised their ratings on Sun. More than ratings, we plan on raising a few eyebrows come Monday, too.