The time has come for ad-hoc mobile networks

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When Julius Genachowski announced in late March that he would be stepping down as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, it marked the culmination of a four-year tenure characterized by rapid growth and transformative change in the telecommunications industry, particularly in the area of broadband. Among other notable achievements, under his watch at the FCC, Genachowski developed the first national broadband plan while emphasizing the need to make additional spectrum available for mobile broadband.

In the area of healthcare in particular, he was a strong advocate of wireless technology and its implications for advancing modern medicine. During the Genachowski years, we witnessed some very high profile FCC initiatives including the creation of a $400 million Healthcare Connect Fund, Medical Body Area Networks, Medical Micropower Networks, Medical Device Radio Communications Service, and wireless medical device testing.

Given his reputation at the FCC for thoughtful and energetic policymaking, it's not surprising that Genachowski decided not to fade away quietly into private life. His last day on the job at the FCC was in mid-May. Yet, despite being a private citizen for just a few weeks, he continues to fuel the debate about critical telecommunications issues of national importance. Last week, in MIT's Technology Review, Genachowski co-authored an editorial with Harvard professor Jonathan Zittrain calling for a test of an emergency ad hoc network in Boston, following the April bombings.

"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," according to Genachowski and Zittrain. "The system was simply overloaded at a time when people needed it most."

They rightfully point out that "similar 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."

The solution, they argue: an emergency private network to aid public safety. In this case, Boston would serve as the "first city where these networks are operational." The beauty of their idea for an ad hoc network is that it "needs no additional technology." They describe how open Wi-Fi access points such as those available at Starbucks, "or cell subscribers who get Wi-Fi 'off-load' from their service providers," are networks which "remain operational even if cellular voice and data towers are out or overloaded." These networks, the say, could be pre-configured for times of emergency "channeling a surge of traffic through broadband with a capacity naturally greater than that of cellular networks." 

Genachowski and Zittrain admit that this solution won't solve the problem completely. And, while the "FCC, other agencies, and the private sector need to continue to work on improving network reliability, resilience, and capacity," nevertheless, ad hoc networks are an idea whose time has come. How many disasters--natural and man-made--do we have to endure as a nation before we address the problem? - Greg (@Slabodkin)