Power outages pull broadband communications oversight to forefront

Thursday - 8/16/2012, 11:28am EDT

Jamie Barnett, former head FCC's public safety and homeland security bureau

Download mp3

After failures of the emergency 911 system during a June storm in the Washington area, one former FCC official is calling for more accountability of emergency telecommunication systems — particularly as the use of digital communications increases.

"When Americans pick up a telephone, they have come to expect they dial 911, it's going to go through and they're going to get help," said retired Rear Adm. Jamie Barnett, the former head of the Federal Communication Commission's public safety and homeland security bureau, in an interview with The Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp. Barnett is currently senior vice president of Academic Programs and Research at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.

The June 29 storm left more than 1 million people in the Washington, D.C., area without 911 service, some for days.

If the emergency service is out 30 minutes, phone companies must report the outage to the FCC, Barnett said. However, in a report this week, Verizon admitted it did not know the 911 emergency service was out in Fairfax County, Va., nor about problems with the system in Arlington County, Va. Verizon, instead, treated outages as customer complaints, rather than as a widespread outage.

Barnett said one of his biggest concerns is how the shift to digital communications would impact emergency communications. Currently, there is no comparable reporting requirement for outages in broadband communications affecting cellphone and Voice over Internet Protocol users.

"We're going to have to deal with this, or we're going to see as we get more sophisticated in our communications that go broadband, our communications may actually get less reliable," he said.

The FCC could pass rules that state broadband is part of the communications network, but Congress "could do it more elegantly." Such a rule change hasn't happened yet because of push back to keep the Internet free and open.

Barnett said he agrees with this sentiment but he also stressed the need for rules that "ensure reliability."

"The accountability has to be there. We have to have rules in place that account for outages and bring those to light — not just for the old legacy circuit switch, but for the new broadband communications as well," Barnett said.

RELATED STORIES:

Genachowski: FCC acts as 'spur' for next-gen 9-1-1 efforts

FCC: Presidential emergency alerts to be tested