Tuesday, February 14, 2006

State Legislation: When Doing Nothing is a Good Idea

Bulletin: The latest from the lege on a statewide emergency communications system: Study it.

Considering the history of the bills in the current session it's not a bad idea to back off it for awhile.

It looks like the role of the wireless telecom emergency bill anticipated by Governor Blanco's call is about to handed to a concurrent resolution introduced, and under suspended rules, passed yesterday in the house. This is the sort of "fast tracking" thing that happens when the fix is in. I expect it to pass the Senate shortly and be signed into law quickly. It asks the military department to study it. (Who knew we had a military department? Not me. Who knew that was the proper place to study communications? Not me.)

The resolution presents a progressive watering down of earlier bills introduced to accomplish this purpose. Like the levee consolidation mess and a lot that is going on in Louisiana's legislature right now the final represents what's left over after well-intentioned attempts to "do the right thing" gets gored by a combination of petty politics, naivete, and special interest pleading. Better, frankly to let it go for now and wait for better days.

That was the executive summary. The rest is a grumpy look at why I think it's just as well that the legislature has decided to wait for a more appropriate time to examine this question.

Read on at your own risk.

Ok, don't say you weren't warned.

A short history of wireless emergency bills in first 2006 Louisiana Special Session:
The intent (if not the practical effect) of one early bill was to free local communities to build their own wireless networks for emergency purposes and to allow citizens to use the excess capacity. (This bill was discussed extensively in the last post and elsewhere on this site.) The bill was blocked for not fitting into the Governor's call but not before being neutered in committee. Backers of the bill are more than a little distressed since they had understood that the emergency wireless part of the call was added to accommodate the bill that it was later found to exclude. At any rate New Orleans will get no relief. And there will be no exclusion for wireless from the onerous conditions of the Local Government (un)Fair Competition Act.

A second bill (also discussed in an earlier post) charged the state's military dept. (didn't know we had one? Me neither.) with developing a state-wide wireless emergency system and included no provision allowing local people an exception from the provisions of the (un)fair competition act to accommodate emergency services. This is the bill that did advance; apparently someone didn't think it politic to let local governments take care of their own needs.

That bill, in its first drafts, included an interesting provision that would have allowed the system to be constructed so that it could be used, during an emergency, to communicate with mere citizens--a sort of emergency broadcasting system for the digital age. Even with the bill inappropriately limited to wireless communications that was an interesting and potentially ground-breaking idea. But that got taken out too. BellSouth? I think so.

What we were left with as a result of the crazy-quilt of cross cutting purposes and interests was a bill that mandated a system that used only one modern communications modality, ignored established and useful systems already in place, and ignored the considerable advantages of modern buried wireline connectivity for emergency services. At the end of all that they were happy to ignore providing for the ability to communicate directly with citizens...much less the value of allowing citizens to communicate with their government and with each other during a crisis.

We can do better than that. And we have to.

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