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January 10, 2013

FCC Tells Verizon Failure to Provide Power Backup for 911 is 'Unacceptable'

By Peter Bernstein, Senior Editor

For better or worse, we’re all painfully familiar with the challenges fixed and mobile operators faced in providing service in the face as a result of Hurricane Sandy. It exposed that communications service providers, along with their other utility service providers and gas station operators amongst many others, did not have sufficient emergency power backup to enable vital services to work just when they were needed most. 

And while the lack of backup power for wireless facilities drew the headlines from Sandy, it was the failure of Verizon (News - Alert) to follow their own backup power and system design procedures that caused 911 emergency-calling service to fail for more than two million people in storms that hit the U.S. Mid-west and particularly the State of Virginia back in June of last year, that drew the ire of Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Julius Genachowski (News - Alert).

As widely reported, the FCC issued its report on those June outages and it did not paint a pretty picture. Emergency calls were disrupted in parts of six states after storms with powerful winds, called derechos, wiped out commercial power.  

The agency’s report traces a cascading series of failures after generators didn’t work properly in two Verizon offices in Washington’s northern Virginia suburbs, cutting 911 service in four jurisdictions.  

Anecdotally, it was noted that in the heavily populated Washington, D.C. suburban county of Fairfax Virginia a Twitter (News - Alert) message was sent the morning of June 30 telling 1.1 million residents to “go to the nearest police or fire station to report emergencies,” according to a county report submitted to the FCC in August.  

This I found interesting, given the presumption that those without power had enough cell phone battery to even receive a tweet.

In addition, seventeen public-safety call centers serving more than two million people in three states failed entirely, and some 911 service, such as location identification, was lost at 77 call centers in six states serving 3.6 million people, according to the FCC report.

As noted, the full report, replete with pictures and graphs, is certainly food for thought going forward. Thus far, the piece has indicated it may consider stronger backup-power requirements for central telephone offices, more tests of 911 circuits, and better designs so a single point of failure doesn’t cripple wide areas of service.

The likelihood that there will be something done jumps out of e-mails from the Chairman as well as Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel.

Chairman Genochowski wrote, “These failures are unacceptable and the FCC will do whatever is necessary to ensure the reliability of 911.”

Commissioner Rosenworcel in her statement said, “Too many of us were left without communications and could not reach 911…We have a duty to find out what went wrong and to apply those lessons to make our networks more resilient.”

Plus, the FCC was not the only ones who are upset. According to a preliminary report by the Virginia State Corporation Commission, Verizon generators in northern Virginia didn’t start automatically when power failed and may not have been properly maintained. This lead to the agency saying in the report that the “unprecedented” 911 system failures shouldn’t have happened, and that the state was very fortunate that the loss of 911 service did not have catastrophic consequences.

For its part, Verizon says that it was aware of the fact that it did not perform as well as it should have and Anthony Melone (News - Alert), Verizon executive vice president and chief technology officer in a statement said the company has corrected the cause of the generator problems in northern Virginia, and “We have acted diligently and decisively to resolve the operational and communications issues that arose.”  

He added that, “Our performance during Hurricane Sandy in late October demonstrated the substantial progress we’ve made.”

For those not familiar with the damage from the drechos, it must also be noted that Verizon may have a good point as to its reactions to the issues raised by those stores. Indeed, the FCC itself acknowledged that the June storms caused greater problems for 911 than did Hurricane Sandy, which left most 911 services intact even as large swaths of infrastructure, including vital switching centers, were destroyed. 

The new report focused on the wired part of the issue since that is most germane to 911 service, and thus did not touch the wireless connectivity problems that plagued users in the northeast in Sandy.

In fact, if this is of interest, the FCC will be holding a hearing on Sandy outages Feb. 5 in Manhattan and Hoboken, New Jersey.

Is regulation in the air? As noted in previous articles about the storm, the communications industry has for years fought mandates regarding their investment in backup power capabilities. But what this report highlights is that putting aside basic service issues, the failure of the 911 system for lack of power, and the possible if not probable lack of maintenance is a red flag that is unlikely to be ignored at the FCC as well as at the state level. 

We shall see what happens when the dust settles regarding what did or did not happen during the hurricane. One would hope that this does not become a stormy season of contention between regulators and the industry over what is reasonable backup given what is at stake.

Want to learn more about the latest in communications and technology? Then be sure to attend ITEXPO Miami 2013, Jan 29- Feb. 1 in Miami, Florida.  Stay in touch with everything happening at ITEXPO (News - Alert). Follow us on Twitter.

Edited by Braden Becker
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