FCC Chairman Spotlights 911 Reliability in the New Fiber- and IP-based World

By Paula Bernier October 31, 2014

The nation’s communications infrastructure is undergoing a sea change as incumbent telephone providers decommission their copper networks in favor of fiber, and communications traffic increasingly becomes IP based. While there are plenty of upsides to this transition, it also creates new challenges in terms of ensuring consumers have continued and reliable access to 911 emergency services, and giving competitive providers reasonable access to customers so they can continue to offer end users alternatives in the marketplace.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler today issued some documents that have to do with securing public safety and preserving service availability and competition as networks transition to newer technologies.

Wheeler circulated to fellow commissioners both a policy statement and notice of proposed rulemaking to address recent 911 outages and ensure reliable 911 service as technology evolves. In fact, the FCC today noted that “an unprecedented number of large-scale 911 outages have occurred this year – not due to storms or disasters but instead due to software and database errors.” And it mentioned that The Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau has a new report out that discusses an April 911 outage caused by a software coding error in equipment a vendor used to route 911 calls on behalf of primary providers in multiple states. That resulted in a loss of 911 service for more than 11 million people in seven states for up to six hours. And that was just one of several 911 outage examples, the FCC noted, adding that part of the reliability challenge is that a single 911 call may touch multiple service providers.

So Wheeler today issued a notice of proposed rulemaking seeking comment on specific proposals to ensure that 911 evolves as the network does. It talks about potentially requiring public notification regarding major changes to 911 service, asks how to ensure entities involved in IP-based 911 services are accountable and reliable, how to be expand 911 reliability certification requirements, and about promoting situational awareness and coordination during 911 outages.

The draft policy statement the chairman circulated to FCC commissioners today, meanwhile, “would affirm the core principles that have guided and will continue to guide the FCC's approach to 911 oversight in partnership with state and local authorities.  Key among these is the principle that as 911 service evolves and more participants are involved in the 911 call completion process, 911 must remain reliable.”

The FCC at its November meeting is scheduled to discuss 911 governance and accountability, and the NPRM and policy statement specifically.

Wheeler today also put forward a document about potentially requiring carriers that seek to discontinue service on legacy networks to provide competitive carriers equivalent wholesale access going forward and also about making sure consumers and other end users are alerted in a timely fashion when incumbents stop service on their copper networks. This discussion also seeks comment on what the FCC should do to enable consumers access emergency services on new networks when the power is down.

One challenge that moving from copper to fiber networks creates has to do with power. While copper lines carry power along with network traffic, which means that we can get phone service even during power outages, that’s not the case with fiber, which relies on battery back up in consumer homes in the case of power outages. 

Edited by Maurice Nagle

Executive Editor, TMC

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