The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has released the text of its Notice of Inquiry (NOI) seeking comment on ways to further strengthen the reliability and resiliency of the nation's communications networks in the event of significant equipment or system failure, especially during major emergencies. To a large extent, the questions raised by the FCC in this NOI were admittedly driven by the concerns expressed by the utility industry in recent FCC broadband and related proceedings. Comments are due July 7, 2011, with reply comments due September 1, 2011.

The FCC explained that the NOI is intended to initiate a comprehensive examination of issues regarding the reliability, resiliency and continuity of communications networks, including broadband technologies. The FCC noted that power companies and other utilities use communications services for their operations and to deploy energy-efficient technologies, such as broadband technologies for Smart Grid services. The FCC also recognized that critical infrastructure providers, such as power companies, must have reliable communications services to aid in their own repair and restoration efforts. The FCC acknowledged that as the nation's communications infrastructure migrates from older technologies to broadband technology, service reliability is a major source of concern for critical sectors, such as energy and public safety.

This inquiry seeks to build upon the record developed in previous FCC proceedings regarding the survivability of communications infrastructure and the lessons from Hurricane Katrina, in which electric utilities raised concerns about the reliability of commercial systems during major emergencies and expressed support for the FCC's examination of the backup power issue.

In light of the concerns raised by electric utilities and others regarding the reliability of commercial communications networks, especially during times of major emergencies and large-scale disasters, the FCC seeks detailed information regarding any factors that significantly contribute to disruptions in communications services during major emergencies.

The FCC also stated that public safety, commercial communications, and utilities are converging on ever more extensive use of broadband technologies. The FCC acknowledged that the potential for a decline in service reliability and resiliency is a source of concern for critical sectors, such as public safety, energy, and finance. Thus, the FCC seeks comment on what action, if any, the FCC should take to bolster the reliability of the nation's broadband communications platform.

In connection with the issues described above, the FCC also requests comment on what role, if any, the agency should take to promote improvements in reliability and resiliency Because this is an inquiry and not a rulemaking proceeding, the net result of this proceeding will likely be recommendations for best practices that can be implemented by carriers on a voluntary basis and/or recommendations for specific requirements that could be adopted by the FCC as part of a formal rulemaking proceeding. Indeed, the NOI states the FCC's intent is to use the dialog developed in this inquiry as the "foundation for future initiatives designed to maximize reliability and resilient communications for the benefit of all Americans, particularly with respect to public safety and national security concerns." Thus, if this inquiry is to serve any useful long-range purpose, it will be important for the FCC to have the benefit of comments from the utility industry on the current state of commercial networks and/or whether voluntary standards and the competitive marketplace will be sufficient to assure utilities of the level of reliability they will need to manage the grid of the future.

To view the full text of the FCC's NOI click here.