In its regularly scheduled open meeting held yesterday, the Federal Communications Commission adopted new rules designed to ensure the reliability of the nation’s 911 service. The action was a direct result of the June 2012 derecho storm—stretching from the Midwest to the Atlantic seaboard—that knocked out 911 service to 3.6 million people across six states. A total of 77 public-safety answering points (PSAPs) lost some level of network connectivity—in some cases, for several days—and 17 PSAPs lost service completely.

In January 2013, the FCC issued a report that said many of the outages could have been avoided, if wireline carriers had implemented industry-accepted best practices. As a result, the order approved yesterday requires 911 service providers—both wireline and wireless carriers—to “provide reliable and resilient 911 service, as evidenced by an annual certification.” Specifically, the commission is requiring carriers to adhere to the following best practices:

·         Annually audit 911 circuits for physical diversity, to eliminate single points of failure

·         Maintain central-office backup power

·         Maintain reliable and resilient network-monitoring systems

The commission said in the order that it would review the new rules in five years to determine whether they are still “technologically appropriate, adequate, and necessary,” particularly in relation to next-generation 911 technology.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler issued a statement that referenced the so-called “regulatory see-saw,” where marketplace solutions are preferred to regulatory solutions—provided that they are implemented and work as they should.

“Inherent in the regulatory see-saw is the reality that, if voluntary solutions don’t work, we must be
willing to pivot rapidly to a regulatory response. This is especially true when public safety is at stake,” Wheeler said. “The 2012 derecho demonstrated how the industry failed to take the proper steps to prevent these kinds of widespread outages. As such, we have an obligation and responsibility to act.”

In addition to the best practices listed above, the order also requires carriers to notify PSAPs when a service outage occurs. This is so that first responders are not “left in the dark” and unable to perform their duties adequately during an emergency, said Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, in a statement.

“These are simple, common-sense solutions,” Rosenworcel said. “But they matter. Because this is not just a conversation about technical fixes. This is a conversation about real people and their safety.”

However, Commissioner Ajit Pai suggested that the commission may have gone too far with this order, citing several problems. One is that the annual audits may be unnecessary. In his statement, Pai noted that the notice of proposed rulemaking issued in this proceeding indicated that biannual or triennial audits would be sufficient and only would be necessary for about half of the nation’s PSAPs—those that are served by more than one selective router. He further said that the audits will be expensive to execute, and he feared that those costs will be passed to PSAPs and, ultimately, the carriers’ customers.

“Shouldering these additional costs may make some PSAPs think twice before investing in
innovative approaches to reliability, such as adopting next-generation 911,” he said.

Pai also expressed concern that the order gives the commission’s public-safety and homeland-security bureau (PSHSB) “largely unconstrained authority” to force carriers to redesign their networks, purchase new equipment or deploy new facilities—a level of micromanagement that he deemed inappropriate and ineffective.

“We at the commission have not trenched fiber, have not tested back-up power facilities, and
have not designed network-monitoring facilities,” Pai said. “The experience reviewing the performance of 911 networks after a single storm that affected barely 1 percent of the country’s PSAPs does not qualify us to second-guess the negotiated agreements of thousands of PSAPs and their 911 [service providers] nationwide.”

Nevertheless, the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) issued statement that praised the commission’s order.

“Today’s action lays out a process to routinely certify those elements of infrastructure that are essential to sustaining and restoring 911 service,” the statement reads. “NENA recognizes that mandatory circuit audits and certification processes will come at a cost, but these costs must be weighed against the value of 911 service to the thousands of Americans who face emergencies every day.”