In today's MIT Technology Review, Former FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski and Berkman Center Director Jonathan Zittrain make a pitch for private networks to aid public safety:
As the Boston Marathon bombings
unfolded, thousands of anxious people in the region pulled out their
mobile phones to connect with friends and family—and found that calls
couldn’t be placed or received. Rumors that officials had shut down
these mobile networks for security reasons weren’t true. The system was
simply overloaded at a time when people needed it most.
problems are likely to arise in the aftermath of other attacks or
natural disasters such as earthquakes, when networks are overwhelmed by
an instantaneous, acute need for large numbers of people to communicate
at once. Our day-to-day communications networks aren’t always geared to
scale up in emergencies. At these times, some citizens and companies
need help, and others are eager to help—and all need to
communicate. With some emerging technologies and a little advance
coordination, we can harness our civic instinct to come together in
times of crisis to keep data flowing.
We can start with an idea
that needs no additional technology. Many people and companies operate
Wi-Fi access points. Each of these points—whether used by apartment
roommates, Starbucks patrons, or cell subscribers who get Wi-Fi
“off-load” from their service providers—is connected to the Internet and often remains so even if cellular voice and data towers are out or
To learn more about public networks for public safety, see the Berkman Center's briefing document which sketches a broad overview of mobile ad hoc networks (MANETs) and mesh technologies, developed following a workshop held at Harvard Law School in March 2012.