With communications networks still recovering from the effects of Hurricane Harvey and with further network disruptions expected as Hurricane Irma makes landfall, we provide this brief reminder of the network outage reporting obligations imposed on communications service providers by the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”). These reporting obligations require most communications service providers, including resellers of communications services, to report critical information regarding service interruptions impacting their subscribers and 911 Public Safety Answering Points (“PSAPs”). These obligations come with specific triggers and deadlines, and may result in significant fines for noncompliance. As a result, communications service providers should familiarize themselves with their FCC network outrage reporting obligations before they experience service disruptions from major weather events.

Who Needs to Report Outages?

The FCC’s network outage reporting rules cover most communications service providers, including, but not limited to, wireless, wireline, and interconnected Voice over Internet Protocol (“VoIP”) service providers. The rules cover not only the actual service provider, but also any affiliated or non-affiliated entities that maintain or offer communications networks used by the provider in serving its subscribers. In addition, although not explicitly addressed in the rules, the FCC determined in 2015 that resellers of communications services that lease or otherwise utilize network facilities also must comply with the outage reporting obligations. This is the case even if the reseller does not have direct access to the network facilities it uses to provide service, as the FCC still demands information regarding the scope of and recovery from reseller service outages.

When are Outages Reported?

Covered communications service providers are required to report “outages” that meet specific criteria. Under the FCC’s rules, an outage is defined as a “significant degradation” in the ability of end users to establish and maintain communications as a result of a failure or other impairment to a communications service provider’s network. The thresholds and deadlines for reporting network outages vary depending on the type of communications service provider affected. For example, the rules require wireless and wireline service providers to notify the FCC within 120 minutes of discovering that they experienced an outage lasting at least 30 minutes that potentially affects a PSAP or at least 900,000 “user minutes,” which are calculated by multiplying the outage’s duration by the number of potentially impacted end users. By contrast, the rules require VoIP service providers to notify the FCC within 240 minutes of discovering that they experienced an outage lasting at least 30 minutes that potentially affects a PSAP, and within 24 hours of discovering that they experienced an outage lasting at least 30 minutes that potentially affects at least 900,000 user minutes. Note that the FCC’s rules establish additional reporting triggers, so communications service providers should review the network outage reporting rules to ensure all reporting obligations are met.

How are Outages Reported?

For outages impacting PSAPs, communications service providers must directly contact the 911 facilities “as soon as possible” to notify them of the outage and provide “all available information” that may be useful in mitigating the outage’s impact. Communications service providers also must file their network outage reports online using the FCC’s Network Outage Reporting System. In their outage notifications, wireless, wireline, and interconnected VoIP providers must provide: (1) the provider’s name; (2) the date and time of when the outage started; (3) a brief description of the outage and its service impacts; (4) the geographic area impacted by the outage; and (5) a service provider contact person in case the FCC has questions. In addition to submitting the first Notice, service providers must submit supplemental reports, within specific timeframes, providing additional information. For example, wireless and wireline providers must submit an “initial” report within 72 hours of discovering the outage, providing updated information, and a “final” report within 30 days of discovering the outage, reviewing the outage’s causes and effects. The FCC requires interconnected VoIP providers only to submit a “final” report within 30 days of discovering the outage.

Note that the FCC may suspend the network outage reporting obligations in certain areas during major weather events and other disasters by activating the Disaster Information Reporting System (“DIRS”). DIRS is a voluntary, web-based system that communications service providers can use to report their communications infrastructure status and other information during disasters. The FCC determines whether to activate DIRS in consultation with FEMA and announces through public notice or email the areas covered by DIRS and the information sought from communications services providers. The FCC recently activated DIRS for areas of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands impacted by Hurricane Irma.

Why are Outage Reports Important?

The FCC takes its network outage reporting requirements very seriously and has imposed millions of dollars in penalties on communications service providers for noncompliance, especially when providers failed to notify PSAPs of outages. Complete and timely network outage reports allow the FCC to track outages and the efforts by communications service providers to restore service to subscribers. The FCC recently issued guidance to communications service providers providing “best practices” to avoid major service disruptions, including training and network access control recommendations. These recommendations ensure that communications service providers implement sufficient redundancy to reduce the impact of outages.