Tuesday, August 14, 2018

FWD: The FCC's much needed Disaster Working Group

Last week, the Federal Communications Commission (Commission) opened a nominating process to select members for a new Disaster Response and Recovery Working Group of the Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee (BDAC).

The long bureaucratic name might suggest to some a tedious process of government meetings, argumentation, and report writing geared at creating new rules that broadband service providers will likely find difficult to interpret, let alone implement without breaking their CAPEX budgets.

However, in light of the shocking telecom disaster in Puerto Rico last year, which revealed woeful preparedness and lax regulatory oversight, any action from the FCC on disaster response and preparedness should be welcomed.

The mission of the new working group is to provide advice and recommendations to the Commission on steps that can be taken to improve disaster preparation, response, and recovery for broadband infrastructure. The same is needed for mobile networks and for optical transport.

A good place to start would be Puerto Rico. All five of the island's mobile networks collapsed during Hurricane Maria, the strongest in a century, with understandable 95% cell tower outages in the early hours, but continued 80% outages lasting for weeks. Not only were all backhaul connections foolishly connected by aerial wire on an island with dense vegetation in hurricane alley, there simply were not plans in place to restore even basic SMS to the majority of the population in the first hours when communications are most needed. The situation soon devolved into the worst mobile telecom disaster in history -- 3.4 million people cut off from telecom services. The outage lasted not for minutes or hours or days, but for weeks!

The broadband network in Puerto Rico was equally impacted -- nearly a total blackout for cable customers and no restoration for weeks or months.  PREPANET, which is the telecom division of the local electric utility, was the leading provider of backhaul service across the island for all of the mobile and broadband operators. Their optical backbone suffered severe damage but the extent of this damage was never clear from the FCC reporting. Some reports claimed water damage disrupted the single point of interconnection between PREPANET's optical backbone and the main cable landing station for the island.

What made this record-breaking telecom disaster even more shocking was that it occurred in a territory of the United States, not a developing country or a place torn by war, extreme poverty or served by network operators with limited technical capabilities. Puerto Rico is served by a multitude of top-tier mobile operators: AT&T, Claro (America Movil), T-Mobile, Sprint and Open Mobile.

To respond to the disaster in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, the FCC did set up a Hurricane Recovery Task Force, which produced daily reports on the number of cell sites out of service. However, the Task Force was not capable of procuring equipment and personnel. It did not seem to have any meaningful budget and never imposed deadlines to get things done. Concerning emergency funds, the FCC did allocate $77 million to help restore networks, drawing upon funds that were already designated for universal service support on the island. In March, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai proposed a new $954 million fund for restoring and expanding communications networks in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. It is not clear if Congress has allocated money for this fund, and whether it would be given as grants or loans to the existing operators.

Even more surprising, the FCC never called on the CEOs of the mobile operators and broadband operators in Puerto Rico to explain in a public forum why their networks failed so spectacularly. Nor have we seen assurances that the rebuilt networks are substantially more resilient, or that minimal emergency communications services could be restarted following another disaster.

Could we imagine this intensity and duration of Puerto Rico telecom disruption occurring in Boston, Minneapolis, Phoenix, Denver or San Diego? It has been nearly a year since Hurricane Maria, and so far we have yet to hear the key learnings from the worst mobile outage to date.

Maybe this new Disaster Response and Recovery Working Group will have something to say. It was not so long ago that Five Nines reliability was an absolute requirement.

https://www.fcc.gov/document/fcc-seeks-applicants-bdac-disaster-response-and-recovery-group

See also