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In December 2013, the FCC adopted rules to improve 911 network reliability.  The rules require Covered 911 Service Providers (“Providers”) to take certain measures to provide reliable 911 service.  The specific measures adopted by the agency attempt to address three network vulnerabilities identified by the FCC in the aftermath of the derecho storm that knocked out 911 service along the east coast in 2012.

Earlier this summer, the FCC released a Public Notice seeking comment on the efficacy of these rules and soliciting input on whether those rules need to be revised.  Comments were filed last month and Reply Comments are due in mid-August.

The Rules

The rules require Providers to promote reliable 911 service with respect to three network elements: circuit auditing, central-office backup power, and diverse network monitoring.  Providers must certify annually that they have met the FCC’s safe harbor provisions for each of those elements or have taken reasonable alternative measures in lieu of those safe harbor protections.  The rules also require Providers to notify PSAPs of any outage that impacts 911 service.

Providers subject to these rules include entities that provide 911, E911, or NG911 capabilities such as call routing, automatic location information (ALI), automatic number identification (ANI), or the functional equivalent of those capabilities, to a public safety answering point (PSAP).

What Has Worked?

Identifying Network Elements.  The Commission considered adopting a generic standard that would have required Providers to take reasonable measures to generally promote network reliability.  Instead, it adopted specific rules that require Providers to meet precise (and narrow) benchmarks that the agency believes will promote network reliability.  This includes conducting circuit audits, ensuring adequate backup power is maintained in data centers, and having diverse paths to monitor network traffic.  These specific standards have worked.  They enable the FCC to address key vulnerabilities in the 911 network while providing the industry with clear, achievable targets.

Annual Certification.  One reason the FCC requires an annual certification is to ensure that senior management is aware of significant vulnerabilities in the 9-1-1 network and accountable for decisions regarding network design, maintenance, and disaster preparedness.  In my experience, this also has worked.  The rules require a senior executive to sign a certification under penalty of perjury, which ensures that senior management is aware of – and involved in – network design and maintenance decisions.

What Needs to be Changed?

Though largely successful, the Commission should consider a few revisions to clarify and strengthen the rules.

Definition of a Provider.  The definition of a Covered 911 Service Provider could be revised to add clarity.  The Commission should tweak this definition to confirm that a Provider must have a direct contractual relationship with a PSAP to provide routing, ALI, and/or ANI service.  This would eliminate confusion about which entities are – and are not – Providers subject to these rules.

PSAP Notifications.  The rules require Providers to communicate outage information directly to PSAPs.  The well-founded intent is to enable PSAP personnel to have real time outage information to formulate appropriate responses to network issues.  However, this frequently leads to individual PSAPs receiving multiple outage updates for a single network event.  By revising the definition of a Provider (as suggested above), the FCC may be able to eliminate some of the duplicative PSAP communication problems so that only the entity with a contractual relationship with the PSAP communicates outage information.

Where Do We Go From Here?

The FCC is seeking objective feedback about the rules because it has not yet determined whether they should be revised, expanded, curtailed, or left unchanged.  One bellwether for determining whether the FCC believes the rules have been effective is going to be how the agency treats the annual certification requirement.

Some commenters have suggested that the certification should be made once every two, three, or even five years.  Other parties urged the FCC to relax the certification obligation so that it need not be made under penalty of perjury by a corporate officer.  Still other parties have urged the FCC to eliminate the certification requirement.

How the Commission handles this issue will indicate whether the agency pursues a deregulatory agenda.

My two cents?  By and large, the rules have worked.  The FCC should make some minor clarifying revisions to the rules, but should otherwise leave the rules unchanged.