FCC Bureau Seeks Comment on Probe into AT&T 911 Outages

March 23, 2017–The FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau today issued a public notice seeking comment by April 7 on the bureau’s investigation into AT&T, Inc.’s wireless 911 service outages earlier this month.  The bureau’s investigation involves a widely reported outage of AT&T Mobility’s voice-over-LTE (VoLTE) 911 service on March 8, and what appears to be a lesser VoLTE 911 service outage on March 11 that had not been widely reported before today.

Lisa Fowlkes, acting chief of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, said today during a presentation to FCC Commissioners at their monthly meeting that based on the bureau’s preliminary inquiry into the outages, the March 8 disruption was the result of AT&T reconfiguring connections in its network that affected 911 call routing for VoLTE, and that due to those changes routing of 911 calls failed. She said the March 8 outage lasted for about five hours and was mostly experienced in the southeastern, central, and northeastern portions of the U.S., although it eventually impacted a “significant portion” of the remainder of the country.  According to Ms. Fowlkes, AT&T normally sees a volume of about 44,000 VoLTE 911 calls per day, but on March 8 about 12,600 callers were not able to reach 911 directly, although a small number of callers were able to connect via backup call center routing performed by manual processing.  She said some callers heard fast busy signals, others heard continuous ringing, and others heard nothing.

According to Ms. Fowlkes, AT&T spread word of the service outage via its Twitter feed, and state 911 entities “took timely steps” to notify consumers through mass notification services, radio and television broadcasts, and social media. The bureau chief also provided some details about the second AT&T Mobility 911 service outage on March 11 that affected some VoLTE consumers.  She did not detail how many calls were impacted, but cited data from AT&T indicating that “only a small percentage” of VoLTE calls to 911 were affected.  The bureau cited a statement from AT&T as saying that the outage lasted “a brief period.”   Ms. Fowlkes said AT&T attributed the March 11 outage to a “hardware failure,” and that the company regards the March 8 and March 11 outages as “unrelated” to each other.

Ms. Fowlkes said her update on the outages provided today was “based on a preliminary inquiry” that has included meetings with AT&T personnel and public safety officials.  She said the bureau’s presentation reflects an “only preliminary” understanding of the causes of the outages, and said its “analysis may change as we learn more.”

The FCC on March 9 announced it was investigating the March 8 outage, and drew praise from the public safety community for its swift action to look into the matter (TRDaily, March 9). “Additional stakeholder input is necessary” into the outages, Ms. Fowlkes said today regarding the “causes, effects, and implications” of the disruptions.

“Our overriding goal is not only to understand the outages . . . but to understand how the Commission, industry stakeholders, and public safety stakeholders working together can contribute to preventing these types of outages in the future,” she said.

Responding to a question from Commissioner Mike O’Rielly, Ms. Fowlkes said AT&T has been fully cooperative with the Commission’s probe of the outages, but she declined to offer a timeline for identifying the core causes of the service outages.  “At this point I can’t give you a specific timeline,” she said, adding, “the bureau is acting expeditiously, but we are also going to be acting very thoroughly to get to the bottom of this.”

“One of the fundamental priorities of the FCC is to protect safety of life and property through communications,” said Chairman Ajit Pai today, adding, “We have to ensure the resiliency and integrity of our nation’s communications systems especially when lives are at stake.”

Commissioner Mignon L. Clyburn commended Chairman Pai for acting swiftly earlier this month to begin investigating the cause of the service outages.

An AT&T spokesman said in a statement today on the March 8 outage, “We’ve done an extensive evaluation of the outage, which was caused by a system configuration change between our network and a certified 911 vendor, and we’re taking steps to address the issue. We take our obligations to our customers very seriously and will continue to work with the FCC as it completes its report on the situation.”

The bureau’s call for comment in PS docket 17-68 states, “In particular, we seek comment on the impact of these outages from the perspective of affected public safety entities, state and local governments, and consumers.” It asks, “Is there an estimate of how many 911 calls could not be completed? Is there an estimate of how many 911 calls were completed using alternative means, such as directly calling ten-digit numbers?  Were Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) able to receive any 911 calls from AT&T subscribers during the outages, with or without Automatic Number Identification (ANI) and Automatic Location Identification (ALI)? Besides the degradation of service availability, what consequences, if any, resulted from these service outages? What impact did the outages have on other sectors of the user community, including businesses and providers of critical services, such as hospitals?”

It continues, “We further seek comment on the flow of information during these outages and the extent to which stakeholders had adequate situational awareness and adequate resources to continue operations. In the absence of receiving notification of the outage directly from the service provider, what, if any, reliable sources of information about ongoing outages are available to PSAPs and consumers? In instances where PSAPs were not notified in connection with the outages on March 8 and March 11, what impact did this have on those entities’ ability to provide adequate 911 call-handling resources to those potentially in distress? To what extent was the public informed of these outages? If so, how were they informed of these outages? Were consumers provided with information on how they could receive emergency services during the outages? If so, how were they provided with this information? What plans do public safety entities have in place for public notification during 911 outages, including the provision of alternative emergency contact information, and how effective were these alternatives?”

Late yesterday, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.) and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D., Calif.) said they sent a letter to Chairman Pai urging the FCC to provide the pubic with more information about the March 8 911 service outage and to provide recommendations on how future wireless 911 outages can be avoided.

“We commend the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for taking swift action to launch an investigation on March 9 and we look forward to the discussion of the outage at your upcoming Open Meeting,” the lawmakers said.

“To the greatest extent possible, the results of the investigation should be made publically available so consumers are aware of the cause and impact of the outage. In addition, we request you provide us with a formal briefing on the FCC’s findings, including the cause of the outage; how many customers were affected nationwide; how many 911 calls were disrupted; and how affected customers were notified of the outage,” they said.

“We also seek your recommendations on how future 911 wireless outages can be avoided. With an estimated 70 percent of the 240 million emergency 911 calls each year placed from wireless phones, and nearly 50 percent of Americans living in cell-phone-only households, it is critical that wireless 911 services are a reliable lifeline for consumers,” they said. – John Curran, john.curran@wolterskluwer.com

Courtesy TRDaily