Imagine this scenario: You have an emergency. You pick up the phone and dial 911. And no one answers.
It seems unthinkable. But a year ago, more than 6,600 emergency calls went unanswered in an outage that affected 11 million people. Officials say there were no deaths as a result.
The cause of the outage was a software glitch. And outages like it are happening more often, as the nation’s 911 system transitions from analog to digital.
A look inside a 911 center in Evanston, Illinois.
“We are in this uneasy transition phase between old and new technology,” says Henning Schulzrinne, former Chief Technology Officer at the FCC who now teaches computer science and engineering at Columbia.
Eventually, an internet-based system will allow emergency operators to know exactly where callers are located — no matter the kind of phone they are using, in addition to be able to receive texts, photos and videos from callers.
But right now, we are in an in-between phase, and experts say the transition isn’t happening fast enough.
One reason is that it is expensive. The bulk of the cost of the 911 network is covered by small fees on phone bills.
“It’s all about cost pressure, both on the public side and on the carrier side,” says telecom analyst Roger Entner of Recon Analytics, “and [companies] regularly get beaten up by consumers and regulatory bodies alike, who are saying: Why is this fee going up?”
In that environment, companies have been looking for cost savings, and various speeds of technology adoption across the country has created a 911 system that is a patchwork of workarounds: not fully internet-based, not completely analog.
To deal with the complexity and hold down costs, telecom companies have outsourced 911 routing to subcontractors, which consolidate customers from multiple states. That’s created the potential that a single point of failure can knock out service for millions.
“It makes the system more complicated, in some sense more brittle, and it leads to less redundancy,” Schulzrinne says.
This has federal regulators paying attention.
“We’ve seen a number of ‘sunny day’ outages in the last year or so, outages that, instead of affecting maybe a single community, they were affecting an entire state or an entire region,” says David Furth, a deputy bureau chief at the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau.
That’s what happened in April 2014, when a software glitch in one operations center in Colorado knocked out 911 service in parts of California, Florida, Washington and four other states. Callers got busy signals when they dialed 911.
The FCC fined two subcontractors involved in the outage more than $17 million and ordered them to implement better outage alarms to respond to incidents more quickly.
The FCC has also drawn up new national guidelines, proposing that companies be required to conduct regular audits to ensure that they have working backup systems, among other rules. The comment period for the proposal has ended, but Furth won’t say when the agency might move forward.
“We take 911 very seriously,” Furth says. “So there is a sense of importance, in terms of making the changes that need to be made.”
Some in the telecom industry have objected to the FCC’s proposal, saying the agency is overreaching into areas of oversight that are the purview of states. AT&T filed comments arguing that “it is impossible for the Commission to regulate the 911 ecosystem to a zero-defect and outage-free world and a rush to expand the 911 Reliability Rules will be costly, burdensome, and, possibly, unworkable.”
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