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FCC Busts Carriers for $3.5 Million Over 911 Fails

WASHINGTON—Both a major national and a regional carrier have been cited by the Federal Communications Commission for failing to provide proper 911 service.The commission reached a $3.4 million settlement with Verizon over a 911 outage that affected nearly 750,000 people in California, while an Oklahoma phone company was nailed with a $100,000 fine for robo-answering emergency callers.

Hinton Telephone Co., of Hinton, Okla., was found in violation of commission rules for “knowingly” routing “911 calls to an automated operator message—a message that instructed callers to ‘hang up and dial 911’ to report an emergency,” the commission’s Forfeiture Order said. “This violation of the commission’s 911 rules continued for three months after Hinton learned of the problem, creating a significant threat to the life and property of Caddo County, Okla., residents.”

The violation occurred from May 6 to Aug. 5, 2013. Previously, Hinton was routing 911 calls to a live AT&T operator, but AT&T discontinued the service and replaced it with the robo-message directing callers to redial 911. Hinton left it that way until FCC investigators told them to fix the problem, the FO said.

“Such behavior is manifestly unacceptable and undermines the public’s ability to make one of the most important calls they ever have to make—calls to first responders in times of critical need,” the document said.

The commission said no dice to Hinton’s argument that “given the unique, complicated, and difficult circumstances of providing 911 service in Caddo County, it exercised reasonable judgment by routing 911 calls to a pre-recorded message while it considered and developed alternative options.”

Hinton also asked for a pass on the fine because it otherwise had a clean compliance record, and the $100,000 fine would “adversely impact the company’s ability to construct and deploy broadband service.”

The commission was not persuaded.

“After Hinton discovered that 911 calls were being routed to an automated message service, it was unacceptable for the company to take three months without any action and to act only after being directed to do so by [FCC] staff,” the FO said.

Payment of the fine is due in 30 days.

Verizon settled with the commission over a widespread outage in April 2014 that affected 11 million people and 83 emergency call centers in seven states. Verizon was held responsible for a six-hour outage in nine California counties covering 24,000 square miles. The commission called it a “classic ‘sunny day’ outage—one that did not result from an extraordinary disaster or other unforeseeable catastrophe.”

FCC rules require carriers to “timely notify all Public Safety Answering Points… but Verizon failed to do so.”

In addition to forking over $3.4 million to end the FCC investigation, Verizon agreed to “adopt a robust compliance plan” developed in coordination with the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau.