One of the most useful tools for the government during a disaster is the Government Emergency Telecommunications Service, or GETS. If you know a PIN number, you can punch it in and immediately connect. It can even jump over busy signals on the line. GETS is invaluable during disasters; 45,000 GETS calls were made during Katrina, for example. And now it might be going away.
To be fair to AT&T, that’s because they’re finally going to upgrade their infrastructure to fiber. The problem, according to the Washington Post, is that turns calls into just another piece of data, and nobody’s quite sure how to prioritize data:
Programming the new, fiber-based network to recognize priority calls — which would otherwise be indistinguishable from other data — would help homeland security officials, but it would take some work. “All the Internet knows how to do is pass things from point A to point B,” said [security expert Jason] Healey. “So if there’s a denial-of-service attack, and VoIP was significantly throttled back, the Internet itself would not know that this is the president’s VoIP call trying to get through.”
If you’re wondering why, precisely, AT&T didn’t realize this was a problem and it’s only now dawning on them, the answer is money. AT&T likely either wants to get paid for its fancy calls, or is hoping to make the government pay for the work of coding a “priority call” system.
The good news is that, for now, tests are limited to a few towns in Florida and Alabama, two states that are never struck by heart-breaking disasters that desperately require emergency response and quick dissemination of information. So that will end well!