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Senator Calls for National IT Guard

By Erin Joyce

U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has called for the creation of the technology equivalent of the National Guard to make sure communications infrastructure can be mobilized during a national emergency.

The idea, set in motion by a New York area technology player, is attracting the attention of major technology companies who are being asked to testify about the proposal on Oct. 3rd in Washington D.C.

The proposal, explained Andrew Rasiej, CEO of New York-based Digital Club Network, is to establish protocols like those of the National Guard so that reservists, in the event of a national emergency, would mobilize communications infrastructure support to the nation.

"Like everybody else, I was completely frustrated watching (the events of Sept. 11) unfold without any ability to use my skills to help," he said. Even those who could help were thwarted right away because communications were impacted by the collapse of the World Trade Center.

Rasiej made the suggestion to Wyden in a written proposal and the Senator brought the idea to congressional leaders this week.

During remarks on the Senate floor, Wyden, the chairman of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space, said: "As all of us understand now, the communications infrastructure of New York, Washington, DC, and indeed the whole country, was severely challenged" during the aftermath of September 11.

"Wireless telephone networks were severely overloaded and crashed. Wireless Internet access was suspended," he said.

"Telephone lines were cut, and communications, for people literally in communities around the East Coast of the United States, came to a standstill. Even the immediate communication needs of rescue workers, victims, families and aid groups were a struggle to coordinate."

Wyden also expressed agreement with a conclusion drawn by The New York Times: New ways are needed to set up emergency information systems.

"That's what I'd like to propose. What this country needs is essentially a technology equivalent of the National Guard: a National Emergency Technology Guard - NET Guard - that in times of crisis would be in a position to mobilize our nation's information technology, or IT, community to action quickly, just as the National Guard is ready to move during emergencies."

He said the NET Guard would be a national volunteer organization of trained and well-coordinated units of IT professionals from U.S. technology companies. The units would stand ready with designated computer equipment, satellite dishes, wireless communicators and other resources to quickly recreate and repair compromised communications and technology infrastructures.

Michael Drapkin, an IT consultant who teaches business and e-commerce issues at Columbia University, didn't want to pooh-pooh the idea but said it raises many issues that need careful thought.

For example, "if a building ends up getting blown up, who's going to run the wires to fix the phone lines? If you want to stick equipment in back-up areas, that might work, but it still won't solve the problem about the wires that connect your building being down. Who's going to fix them?"

For many small firms that didn't have the kind of existing backup systems and contingency plans that major firms in the financial district activated during the aftermath of the World Trade Center collapse, he wonders whether a "National Tech Guard" is an answer to an issue that centers around the cost of doing business.

"There is a lot of data center space available for Disaster Recovery -- TechCity in Kingston, NY has 2.4 million square feet of data center space, most of it empty, where firms easily and cheaply can set up disaster recovery sites. The real question is: Are they willing to pay for it?"

Drapkin, who has been organizing his technology company XB5 to help volunteer IT services to smaller companies, said one area the government could act upon is with cellular network coverage.

"Service has been a problem since (cellular service) went digital as it is expensive to build and difficult to make reliable. One solution might be for the government to encourage a single cell communications standard so that all the various cellular providers with different non-compatible cell towers can act as a single system, like the GSM system does in Europe."

The National IT Guard proposal is an idea, said Rasiej, an effort to start a dialogue among government, corporate, military and non-profit leaders about getting information tech guards ready to respond to the call in a national emergency.

"If we are asked by the President to rise as a nation to face a war, this is a perfect opportunity for the technology community to protect our country's information infrastructure."

Rasiej is also helping to coordinate a coalition of Silicon Alley groups called in order to organize various volunteer efforts into sub-sectors of tech skills ready to help agencies where most needed.

The effort, separate from this proposal, was launched on Monday and since then, more than 1,000 volunteers have joined the Silicon Alley Cares effort, he said.

September 27, 2001

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