The Federal Communications Commission is trying to update the aging American 911 network for an era of cellphones and fiber networks. On a call today, senior FCC officials announced that Chairman Tom Wheeler was circulating draft rules that would improve reliability, expand requirements for service providers, and make it clearer who is responsible when 911 fails.
The emergency phone system is increasingly facing problems as wireline networks age and VoIP and wireless phone use increases. It's had frequent failures, including a major "sunny day" outage (in which no outside factors were responsible) in April 2014 that affected 11 million people. The FCC cites at least three other cases from this year: a 20-hour service outage across the state of Hawaii, a 40-minute outage for Vermont, and a wireless carrier outage that knocked 40 million customers' 911 access offline for two hours.
The FCC wants a clear chain of responsibility for emergency calls
Many problems stem from errors that route calls to the wrong place or stop them from being completed, combined with a lack of failsafes and miscommunication when multiple phone service providers all outsource their emergency infrastructure to one company. Moving from copper wires to newer technology has created new problems. Traditional landline phone service, for example, works during blackouts because the wires themselves are powered by phone companies. But VoIP service, run over newer network infrastructure, will go out unless customers have a backup battery on hand. Wheeler is proposing two calls for comment that will cover both general 911 regulations and plans for upgrading networks without losing basic functionality.
Some parts of the proposal are meant to deal with network upgrades. The FCC wants to know whether companies should have to provide backup batteries when switching away from copper wire, and how carriers should deal with changing or shutting down a service. Among other things, companies will need to be more transparent with customers. Others are more broad, attempting to clear up confusion around emergency calls. One of the biggest issues with 911 service is that a few companies serve as choke points, routing calls from from thousands of miles away. It doesn't sound like this infrastructure will become less centralized, but the FCC is attempting to at least establish a chain of command, assigning primary authority and accountability to carriers (although that could change based on input.) It's also looking at how to expand the 911 certification process to deal with these new questions.
911 reform has been on the table for some time, and like other FCC proposals, this will need to go through a lengthy comment period before being adopted. But given the agency's dire-sounding report from earlier this month, it's clearly something it sees as a pressing concern.