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Why Asterisk Matters: It’s Katrina, Stupid!

Over the past eight weeks, we’ve written the better part of a book on how to quickly and effectively deploy Asterisk@Home PBX systems using hardware which many folks and virtually every corporation in America have sitting around gathering dust in a back room. For anyone that’s been reading between the lines, you already know that, with these Asterisk® servers running on low-end Pentium III hardware, you could quickly and inexpensively build and deploy a meshed communications network supporting the needs of tens if not hundreds of thousands of users. What Google did for searches with lots of small, networked, redundant PCs, Asterisk could do for communications using virtually identical (low-cost) hardware. And the typical build time: under an hour! If you’re in the continuity of operations or disaster recovery business, you need to take a hard, careful look at Asterisk and especially Asterisk@Home. Our tutorials will get you started.

Also during the past month, our country endured one of the worst natural disasters in its history, Hurricane Katrina. If you’ve been following the news, you’ve probably reached the same conclusions that we have. There were at least four major shortcomings which arose after Katrina: food, water, security, and communications. We’ll leave the first three to others who are more qualified to solve them. We’re more concerned about the last one. The total absence of a communications solution during this disaster appears to be merely the tip of a very large iceberg: the lack of creative technical talent in our country with the capacity to solve basic technical problems which don’t follow a preordained script especially after a catastrophic event. It seems the key ingredient in everyone’s disaster recovery plan was cellphones. Wrong!

Where were our self-proclaimed technology geniuses after Katrina: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Eric Schmidt, Larry Ellison, Michael Dell, Andy Grove, Larry Page, and on and on? Where were our whiz kids when the country desperately needed some technical help? Was there a trade show that we all missed somewhere? Oh, I almost forgot. There was a new iPhone to introduce. Too bad they don’t work without a functioning cellphone tower. Hint to all billionaires: You Can’t Take It With You. And where were all those football blimps when we could have used them for something other than a 15-second panoramic shot above the SuperDome? Is all the glorious talk of WiMax just hot air? Was there no better place to try out this technology than New Orleans these last couple weeks? Come on, folks! The feds, of course, had no problem ordering up the most costly solution on the planet to meet their own communications needs. But what would you expect from an aerospace contractor selling $500 toilet seats?

Bush Vacation - courtesy of half the sites on the InternetWhat became abundantly clear very quickly was that there weren’t any technical geniuses (or any other genius flavors) in FEMA or elsewhere in the federal government, state governments, or local municipalities. Is there only one Rudi Guiliani, Crisis Manager, in the whole damn country? We probably should have anticipated our government’s technical shortcomings after reading how the FBI has been trying to build a unified database for one government agency, itself, FOR TEN YEARS. But wouldn’t you think the same folks that can communicate from Earth to Mars could wire some tin cans together when folks really needed some help getting in touch with their loved ones. As someone who served in the federal government for over 30 years, I’m embarrassed to see how little talent remains and how many bureaucrats and politicians are on the payroll who care about nothing more than themselves and their next photo op. And you wondered why everybody was outsourcing their technology jobs to India!

Some of you are probably snickering saying "but there weren’t any phone lines or cable modems, dummy." Ah, but you can buy a modified Pringles can that will transmit and receive the data equivalent of ten T1 lines for a distance of 10 MILES for under $50. You can even buy them at CompUSA (or you could have stolen them with the police if you were in New Orleans). Or you could build two yourself for under $10! Think what $10,000 could have built. And just think of the media coverage Pringles would have gotten … for free. After all, that’s what seems to matter. Now we need electricity. Fine. You can walk in any Home Depot or Lowe’s and buy a generator with networking power to spare for under $500. Add another $30 for a week’s worth of gasoline and presto: instant network and communications for thousands of people. 200 generators, 400 Pringles cans, and a truckload of clunker PCs and wireless access points comes to a little over $100,000, and there would have been communications to spare. Is there no one left at any level of government that can create a functional, low-tech solution that works without turning to AT&T or Sprint … who was also dead in the water, literally. Guess where Sprint’s major network hub was located? You guessed it: New Orleans, Louisiana. Now there’s a technology breakthrough: build your communications hub below sea level.

Think what $1 million could have built for the people in the hands of a creative technology group of Americans. The only trouble with Microsoft and America’s other technology giants is there are too many overweight millionaires on the payroll that care about little else than the value of their stock portfolios. Here’s something to ponder. When some of those nutty guys in the Middle East decide its time to blow up something new and they choose one of your corporate campuses, what’s your stock going to be worth then? At least put yourself together an Asterisk box so you and your colleagues can conference and whine together.

I’m sleeping better now knowing that New Orleans is going to be rebuilt … whatever it costs. After all, George Bush told the world he used to party there. But what about the poor folks in Mississippi and L.A. That’s Lower Alabama for those of you who’ve never been there. Hopefully someone will come along who still can make a difference in the communities that don’t have and really don’t want another Bourbon Street.

Update. CNN carried the following story about this very subject on Wednesday, October 5, 2005.

Who Is This Guy? Ward Mundy is a retired attorney who spent more than 30 years providing legal and technology assistance to the federal courts in the United States.


  1. EXACTLY!!! I have been wondering the same thing since this disaster happened. With all the resources the federal and state governments have you would think that putting together some communications hubs would have been the first step in disaster relief. And you are correct, it could have been done with off the shelf parts. By the way, I have been a regular visitor to this site since it appeared on digg.com and I wanted to say thanks for the very informative and fun mac projects. This is a well put together site and I look foreward to any future projects you might have on here. Keep up the good work!

  2. Just wanted to thank you for sharing your expertise in exposing the ineptness of what happened in NOLA. It’s even more shameful in view of your suggestions of what they could have done.

  3. Howard Fineman from Newsweek was on the Imus show this morning. He put it this way:

    "I was talking to a Congressman from down there named Gene Taylor who was from Biloxi, he said he was in a command center down there, he said he had to send runners out all around his county, literally people to either walk or drive if they had gas in their car, to go report back to him as to what was going on. It’s an utter disgrace, an utter disgrace that throughout this country there isn’t communications ability among first responders in any city that I know of. That’s outrageous. Osama Bin Laden is over there in his cave just laughing in his beard."

    So maybe the headline ought to be Why Katrina Matters: It’s Asterisk Stupid!

    [WM: When you take into consideration that the FBI reportedly was using FedEx to send Wanted Posters between their offices TWO YEARS AGO because they had no secure e-mail system, nothing surprises me.]

  4. If I knew where you lived, I’d buy you your choice of drink. Those comments are RIGHT ON TARGET. I have been in business over 20 years and cannot count the number of times I worked with a company that was spending incredible amounts of money on crap or the completely wrong technologies to accomplish their goals.

    Keep up the good work!

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