NEW YORK – It’s the telecom equivalent of post-game analysis. When a landline phone network suffers a serious outage, the company involved has to tell federal regulators what happened and how it can be avoided next time.
The Federal Communications Commission believes the public outage reports, required since the early 1990s, have helped to dramatically improve network quality. But the rule applies only to landline companies, an anachronistic loophole in this age of wireless phones and voice service from the cable company.
So it would make sense to expand the rule to other communications companies, right? Not so fast.
The FCC’s proposal to make that change has met with strong opposition, not only from phone companies but also from the Department of Homeland Security, which contends that the outage reports could serve as blueprints for terrorists bent on wrecking U.S. communications systems.
Homeland Security wants future reports to be filed with one of its own infrastructure-monitoring bodies, the Information Sharing and Analysis Center in the National Coordinating Center for Telecommunications, and kept from public analysis.
That appears to put Homeland Security at odds with New York City’s telecommunications department, the National League of Cities and the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials, which have endorsed the FCC’s plan.
Of course, Homeland Security’s objections have been eagerly echoed by dozens of phone companies and industry groups that have multiple beefs with the outage reporting rules. The industry’s main complaint is that the reports should be voluntary, not mandatory.
Brian Moir, a Washington attorney who represents large telecom customers and supports the FCC’s proposal to extend the outage report rules, said phone carriers have always objected to the requirement and now are using national security as an excuse.
“What 9/11 produced for them is a windfall opportunity to rebake all of their old bogus arguments as to why we shouldn’t have any of these (outage reports),” Moir said. “They’ve morphed all of their comments into post-9/11-ese.”
The issue of public access to government information has become a hot topic since Sept. 11, 2001. National security fears have led agencies to shut down Web pages about airports, power plants, military bases and other parts of the national infrastructure. For a while, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission took down its entire website.
In May, the Rand think tank said federal officials should consider reopening about three dozen such websites, saying there was no need to censor their information, since similar or better information is easily available elsewhere.
Security concerns already have affected the FCC-mandated phone outage reports – they used to be available on the Internet, but were taken down after Sept. 11 as well. They are now available only in paper form from FCC headquarters.
Often jargon-laden, the filings generally reveal prosaic problems that bedevil telecom network managers.
For example, SBC reported in January that 43,224 customers lost service for three-and-a-half hours because frozen water pipes burst in a central switching office in Stamford, Connecticut. Water seeped down two floors and “damaged the Symmetricom Digital Clock Distributor.”
That same month, fishermen trawling off the Florida coast accidentally severed an undersea cable belonging to AT&T, blocking service to 48,377 customers for eight-and-a-half hours.
The reports are meant to give the FCC and industry experts a wide view into how to develop “best practices” for future situations.
Supporters of extending the reporting rules say it is essential to gain a similar amount of insight about wireless networks, since they have become a ubiquitous method of communication. Some municipal officials have suggested extending the outage rules to data networks as well.
However, Homeland Security officials say the industry could learn from outage reports just as efficiently if the filings were kept from the public.
In filings to the FCC last month, Homeland Security lawyers acknowledged that many reports aren’t particularly sensitive. But the filings could “provide a potential adversary with a virtual road map targeting network stress points and vulnerabilities and a field guide to defeating ‘best practices’ and protective measures,” they wrote.
The industry has long contended that filing the reports should be voluntary, not mandatory, saying that reports filed voluntarily would not be accessible through Freedom of Information Act requests.
Cell-phone companies in particular contend that an existing, voluntary information-sharing system has been working fine. The companies also say no rule could make them more attentive to network reliability than they already are, because the industry is highly competitive.
But the FCC hasn’t been so impressed with the industry’s ability to decide for itself how much outage information to share. When the commission proposed the rule expansion in February, it noted that only a few companies had consistently sent voluntary information. And the filings that had arrived didn’t have enough information to be useful. “Important fields in most reports were not completed,” FCC staff wrote.
Moir, the lawyer, serves on a committee that has gone through voluntarily filed reports. He says some documents not only delete the name of the company involved, but in some cases the telecom segment, such as cable or wireless.
“There was one report with eight words. Eight freaking words!” Moir said. “The report was laughable. It was just a waste of dead trees.”
Having been besieged by comments against the outage plan, FCC officials won’t predict how the debate will be resolved or when. Said Jeff Goldthorp, chief of the agency’s network technology division: “We’re in the process of reviewing the record carefully.”