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FCC Sets Rules for Enhancing Wireless Networks During Disasters

Hurricane
(Image credit: Getty)

WASHINGTON—The FCC this week introduced new regulations designed to improve the reliability and resiliency of mobile wireless networks during times of disasters and other emergencies. Spurred on by recent events in the past year such as Hurricane Ida, the earthquakes in Puerto Rico and winter storms in Texas and the ongoing wildfires in the West, the new rules leverage the industry-developed Wireless Network Resiliency Cooperative Framework as a starting point for introducing the commission’s "Mandatory Disaster Response Initiative". 

The commission’s actions effectively codify the Framework’s five substantive provisions as mandatory, extends the reach of the provisions to all facilities-based mobile wireless providers, expands the real-world criteria that trigger activation of the MDRI and introduces new provisions requiring providers to test their roaming capabilities and report on the performance of their implementation of the MDRI to the commission after disaster events. 

“The action we take today breaks new ground in ways that will further improve the resiliency of our communications networks in response to the record received on the Resilient Networks Notice and in light of the need to achieve near-term benefits in anticipation of future disaster events,” the FCC said in its Report and Order. “At the same time, much remains to be done to ensure that our communications networks achieve their full potential as critical lifelines for those in need during times of emergency.” 

When the Framework—which is a voluntary agreement among the nation’s largest wireless carriers, including AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile—was announced in 2016, the FCC endorsed the move in lieu of a mandatory regulatory regime at the time. It commits its participants to a five-pronged approach to enhance coordination during an emergency by:

  • Providing for reasonable roaming under disaster arrangements (RuDs) when technically feasible;
  • Fostering mutual aid among wireless providers during emergencies;
  • Enhancing municipal preparedness and restoration by convening with local government public safety representatives to develop best practices, and establishing a provider/PSAP contact database;
  • Increasing consumer readiness and preparation through development and dissemination with consumer groups of a Consumer Readiness Checklist; and
  • Improving public awareness and stakeholder communications on service and restoration status, through Commission posting of data on cell site outages on an aggregated, county-by-county basis in the relevant area through its Disaster Information Reporting System (DIRS).

This week’s announcement extends the Framework to all mobile wireless providers and rejects suggestions that smaller facilities be exempted. “We recognize the merits of the current Framework and agree with the commenters who argue that its provisions would be more effective if they were expanded to include entities beyond the Framework’s current signatories,” the FCC said. “We reject the views of the CCA and NTCA—The Rural Broadband Association (NTCA) that smaller providers should be excepted from today’s rules because they need to prioritize work on their own networks or lack the resources required for compliance in the midst of emergencies.  We find that, as a practical matter, such concerns can be mitigated.”

The new rules will also require each facilities-based mobile wireless provider to enter into bilateral roaming agreements with all other facilities-based mobile wireless providers from which it may expect to request roaming privileges and that such agreements be executed and in place no later than the compliance date for the MDRI.

“This advance planning will allow, for example, time for the providers subject to the agreement to undertake initial testing and confirm that the roaming functionality works as intended and/or take remediation steps to address technical issues prior to the actual onset of a disaster or emergency event, as well as to swiftly implement roaming when the MDRI is triggered,” the commission said.

The commission also agreed with NCTA and Verizon for the need for continuous testing to ensure disaster preparedness, including testing of bilateral roaming capabilities.  “We find that bilateral testing will ensure that providers spend time optimizing, debugging and diagnosing their networks well in advance of emergencies, ensuring that these networks roam as effectively as possible when a disaster strikes, ultimately saving lives and property,” the commission said.

In determining when the MDRI is to be triggered during an emergency, the FCC acknowledged the Public Safety and Homeland Security’s role in responding to state requests. 

“We find that the public interest supports a rule that the MDRI is triggered when either ESF-2 or DIRS is activated, or when the Chief of the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau announces that the MDRI is activated in response to a request received from a state in conjunction with the state activating its Emergency Operations Center, activating mutual aid, or proclaiming a local state of emergency,” the FCC said. “As such, we delegate to the Chief, Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau the authority to issue a public notice effectuating the MDRI under these circumstances, and to prescribe any mechanisms for receiving such a request.” 

In terms of the financial burdens on mobile wireless carriers, the commission noted that many of the costs associated with upgrading facilities have already been undertaken and in the end, will be worth it. “We find that the incremental costs to the nation’s facilities-based mobile wireless providers for codifying the Framework in today’s MDRI rules will be minimal in many cases and, even when significant, will be far outweighed by nationwide benefits,” the commission said.  

Tom Butts
Tom Butts

Tom has covered the broadcast technology market for the past 25 years, including three years handling member communications for the National Association of Broadcasters followed by a year as editor of Video Technology News and DTV Business executive newsletters for Phillips Publishing. In 1999 he launched digitalbroadcasting.com for internet B2B portal Verticalnet. He is also a charter member of the CTA's Academy of Digital TV Pioneers. Since 2001, he has been editor-in-chief of TV Tech (www.tvtech.com), the leading source of news and information on broadcast and related media technology and is a frequent contributor and moderator to the brand’s Tech Leadership events.