Public Safety Officials, Carriers Spar over Expanding 9-1-1 Outage Reporting Mandates

Public safety officials say the FCC should move forward with expanded reporting requirements on telecommunications carriers related to outages affecting 911 services, but carriers tell the FCC that the agency should simplify reporting requirements and refrain from requiring “over-reporting” of minor issues.

The FCC released a notice of proposed rulemaking March 30 in PS docket 15-80 seeking comment on proposals to improve and update its Part 4 outage reporting rules (TRDaily, March 30).  The notice proposes to require providers to report any outages that “significantly” degrade or prevent the completion of 911 calls to public safety answering points (PSAPs), not just total outages, and to allow states to access outage information covering their states.

In comments filed July 16, the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials-International, Inc., supported the FCC’s proposal to “clarify that any network malfunction or higher-level issue that significantly degrades or prevents 911 calls from being completed constitutes a ‘loss of communications to PSAP(s),’ regardless of whether the PSAP is rendered completely unable to receive 911 calls.”.

“Clearly, knowledge of a significant degradation of service short of a complete failure is of very high value to PSAPs and emergency managers,” APCO said.

In response to the FCC’s query on how a provider should determine that there is a need to report a partial loss of communications to a PSAP, APCO recommended that the FCC require an outage report when at least half of the trunks serving any given PSAP are out of service. 

“PSAPs vary greatly in size,” APCO said.  “Yet the vast majority of PSAPs are small, with just a few telecommunicator positions. For most PSAPs, losing half or more of the trunks would be a significant problem. Thus, a threshold of at least half of the serving trunks would serve as an appropriate basis to trigger outage reports, and account for a ‘significant degradation’ that does not rise to a full failure.”

Regarding wireless service providers specifically, APCO said it supported the NPRM’s suggestion of a “separate and additional wireless outage reporting requirement based on the geographic scope of an outage, irrespective of the number of users potentially affected.”  APCO said it agreed with the FCC that the number of 911 calls from wireless devices continues to increase and the negative impact of losing coverage in large geographic areas continues to grow in significance.

“A geographic-based reporting requirement would also be helpful during special events and tourist seasons that attract large crowds to areas that are otherwise sparsely populated,” APCO said.  “In addition, PSAPs would benefit generally by being informed of geographic-based outages in order to plan for contingencies or mitigate potential harm to account for the lack of access to 911.”

“In APCO’s estimation, an outage affecting one-third of a county or PSAP service area would likely account for situations when a reporting requirement based on potentially affected users might not be triggered,” it said.  “Thus, APCO proposes that the Commission adopt a new outage reporting requirement for wireless service providers that is triggered when an outage covers one-third or more of any county or PSAP service area.”

The National Association of State 911 Administrators (NASNA) agreed with the FCC that partial loss of connectivity to a PSAP should be considered an outage.  But it said the reporting should not be triggered by a specific number of “trunks” affected, calls that fail to be completed, or population served by the PSAP.

“The only metric that makes sense to us is this: If an outage is of a nature that potentially prevents some or all 911 calls from getting through to a PSAP and lasts at least thirty minutes – regardless of population density – it should be reported,” NASNA said.  “It is a simple solution and not open to interpretation.”

NASNA said it agreed with the FCC that the “negative impact to the public from large geographic areas losing wireless coverage for emergency calls grows in significance as the percentage of 911 calls from wireless devices increases.

“In the interest of being technology neutral, and not just wireless technology neutral, the Commission should adopt the same outage reporting metric we recommend for wireline, i.e., any outage the nature of which would potentially prevent some or all 911 calls from getting through to a PSAP, regardless of population density, and that lasts at least thirty minutes,” it said.

NASNA also supported the proposal to give states read-only access to the portions of the Network Outage Reporting System (NORS) database in their respective states.

CTIA said it supported the notice’s “targeted proposals” to make “meaningful, reasonable improvements,” but opposed those that would “significantly expand the reach of the rules beyond the intent and structure of the current framework.”

CTIA urged the FCC to adopt a “standardized and simplified method for calculating the number of users ‘potentially affected’ by a wireless network outage,” specifically by adopting the notice’s proposal to multiply the number of cell sites disabled as part of an outage by the average number of users the carrier serves per cell site.  CTIA also called for changing the method of reporting wireless outages affecting a Public Safety Answering Point, which would be calculated by dividing the “capacity of a mobile switching center equally among subtending PSAPs.”

CTIA opposed the proposal to require wireless carriers to report call failures that result from congestion in the radio access network, which it said would “assess wireless call quality and radio access network congestion during temporary surges and expand the scope of the outage rules well beyond their underlying purposes.”

CTIA also urged the FCC to refrain from expanding the rules to require reporting for a “partial loss of communications” to a PSAP, “as the underlying concern is undocumented and the proposed solutions are unworkable.”

Verizon Communications, Inc., said the FCC should “simplify the part 4 outage reporting thresholds, apply obligations consistently across different networks in a competitively neutral and technically feasible way, and focus only on significant outage events caused by network problems.”

But Verizon said some of the proposals in the NPRM would not achieve those objectives.

“Requiring carriers to separately report ‘partial’ 911 outages would cause carriers to overreport and blur the distinction between consumer-affecting outages and minor incidents, thus diluting the effectiveness of NORS data,” Verizon said.  “The Commission should just clarify that under the existing rules, a significant degradation of 911 service is reportable based on when the provider reasonably becomes aware pursuant to normal business practices that a reportable outage has occurred.”

Requiring wireless carriers to report incidents of blocked calls resulting from high wireless call volumes “would drift even farther from the Commission’s Part 4 objectives by treating a resilient and functional wireless network as a reliability problem,” Verizon said.  “Call blocking data is often not available during or shortly after an incident, and a standard that applies consistently across all service providers and platforms, including licensed and unlicensed wireless services, will be elusive given how wireless networks and technologies evolve rapidly.”

Verizon also urged the FCC to “simplify the outdated reporting thresholds for wireless outages based on macro cell sites out of service in a given geographic area rather than user minutes, and apply a standard four-hour period for the initial notification filing.”

CenturyLink, Inc., said changes to rules that are “admittedly working well should be undertaken only if there is a documented need for a rule change and a tangible public safety benefit that is sure to result from that rule change.”

Proposals in the NPRM that meet that standard, CenturyLink said, include increasing the reporting threshold for major transport facility outages, sharing FCC outage reports with state commissions as long as appropriate confidentiality protections are in place, and refining the types of airports that would constitute “special offices or facilities.”

Some proposals in the NPRM, however, “lack that essential nexus,” and CenturyLink said it could not support them “without additional clarification regarding the actual public safety benefit to justify the burdens these modifications would impose.”

Those proposals include “substantially shortening the duration for reportable simplex events from five days to 48 hours” and modifying the current definition of “loss of communications to PSAP(s)” to require reporting of partial outages.

The Michigan Public Service Commission recommended granting state agencies access to confidential NORS data, which it said would enable states to “permit their statutory duties in a more robust fashion, while enabling more efficient reporting practices for service providers.

“The necessary confidential protections can be extended and agreed to by states prior to obtaining access to their respective region’s NORS outage information by using current registration procedures for accessing confidential information that have been used successfully in other areas of the telecommunications industry,” the PSC said.  “Because access to NORS outage information will enhance the states’ ability to perform their responsibilities in protecting public health and safety and providers’ confidentiality concerns can be addressed, the MPSC supports the efforts of the FCC to grant state agencies access to NORS outage information.”

The Massachusetts Department of Telecommunications and Cable also supported giving states access to outage data, backing the FCC’s proposal to provide states with read-only access to the NORS database.

“The FCC should grant states access under the same requirements for which the FCC has granted access to other databases containing confident information,” it said.  “In granting access, the FCC should not preempt states from collecting unique outage information, nor unduly burden states in their access and use of the NORS database.”

The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners filed comments supporting the recommendations made by the Michigan PSC and the Massachusetts Department of Telecommunications and Cable.

“Granting State agencies access to NORS outage information will permit States to perform crucial duties with better information,” NARUC said.  “There is no downside risk or inefficiency with allowing access. The necessary confidential protections can be extended and agreed to by States prior to obtaining access to their respective region’s NORS outage information by using current registration procedures for accessing confidential information that have been used successfully in other areas of the telecommunications industry.” – Brian Hammond, brian.hammond@wolterskluwer.com