FCC mulls rule to compel undersea cable firms to report major outages

CNMI calls for FCC’s ‘active role’ in oversight

The federal body overseeing telecommunications in the United States is calling for a proposed rule that would require submarine cable operators to provide a “detailed report” on significant network outages.

Federal Communications Commission chair Tom Wheeler—in announcing the draft rule late last month—cited IT&E’s major network outage crisis in July, which left thousands in the CNMI unable to contact the outside world.

Right now, other communication providers—including wireline, wireless, and satellite providers—are required to report outages to FCC’s Network Outage Reporting System. But no rule currently exists to compel submarine cable operators to do the same.

This proposed rule would require submarine cable licensees to report significant outages in “appropriate detail” to the federal commission, Wheeler said.

“…Licensees currently only report outages on an ad hoc basis,” Wheeler wrote in his Aug. 27 announcement on the FCC website. “…And the information we receive is too limited to be of use.”

On Wednesday, Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP) wrote to Wheeler in support of the rule, saying these mandatory service reports could “ensure reliability and prevent future network interruptions.”

The administration of Gov. Eloy S. Inos also welcomes the new development. Press secretary Ivan Blanco thanked Sablan for his support and “follow up” on a push for more federal oversight that was made official in 2014.

Blanco said yesterday that in May 2014, the administration—through Department of Commerce Secretary Mark O. Rabauliman—brought to the attention of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, or NTIA, “the fragile status of the CNMI’s only undersea cable and the need for oversight and additional competition.”

Commerce’s “Broadband” report was provided to the FCC, the NTIA, the Commonwealth Public Utilities Commission, Sablan’s office, and other local leadership agencies.

“The administration not only supports the FCC initiative, it welcomes it,” Blanco told Saipan Tribune. “The administration encourages a more active role by the FCC for the regulation and administration of undersea cable to ensure that the CNMI’s broadband is accessible, affordable, and available to every student, every business, and every anchor institution.”

The FCC will meet this Sep. 17 to consider the draft rule.

It’s unclear right now if the proposed rule—if issued and eventually made final—would apply retroactively to IT&E, or PTI, the owner of the telecommunications firm, and compel a report on the cable break in July.

An email asking Wheeler this question was not immediately responded to as of press time yesterday.

If the “Notice of Proposed Rulemaking,” or NPRM is used, there is usually a two- to three-month period allowed for public comment.

An IT&E official said yesterday they did contact FCC on the outage last July.

“Even though we are not required, IT&E did notify the FCC of the outage one day after the outage,” Rob Harrell, IT&E’s customer operations executive director, said.

The recent development of the proposed rules appears to stem from a call for federal oversight to protect Internet security around the world.

IT&E officials have called the cable cut an “an act of God” brought about by harsh weather from passing typhoons.

“Imagine a community with tens of thousands of residents suffering a communications blackout for more than 48 hours,” wrote Wheeler in his Aug. 27 announcement.

“Not only were residents unable to send emails or make phone calls, their banking system shut down, leaving people unable to make credit card transactions or withdraw money from an ATM.”

“This is not hypothetical,” Wheeler went on to write. “It happened last [July] in the Northern Marianas Islands, a U.S. territory in the Western Pacific Ocean. The cause: a break in an undersea cable.”

Noting that undersea cables carry more than 95 percent of all U.S. international voice, data, and Internet traffic, Wheeler said the proposal he is circulating within the FCC is one that would enhance the security and reliability of this “key piece” to the Internet’s physical infrastructure.

In his letter on Wednesday, Sablan said he supports the consideration of the draft FCC rule. He said the recent communications blackout in the NMI “heightened the awareness of the vulnerability of our communications systems” and a “need to make it more secure.”

Sablan also announced the development in his weekly newsletter, stating again his support for Wheeler’s decision.

Both Wheeler and Sablan did not cite the name of the undersea cable company, or IT&E, in their announcements.

The FCC’s open meeting is scheduled on Sep. 17 from 10:30am to 12:30pm Eastern Daylight Time.

Blanco said they support FCC’s call for submarine network outages that come “with enough detail to understand the nature and impact of any damage and disruption to communications, help mitigate any impact on emergency services and consumers, and assist in service restoration.”

The proposed rule is scheduled under “Submarine Cable Reliability” as one of two items scheduled for the open meeting.

The FCC schedule states that the commission will consider a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that proposes “to require submarine cable licensees to report outages.”

IT&E’s fiber optic cable break last July 8 halted business transactions and forced airlines to cancel flights, among other direct and indirect effects. The company slowly brought interim service back through their backup microwave system, which was said to have been damaged by passing typhoons. IT&E, which expedited the arrival of a repair ship from Taiwan, completed the repair to the cable repair by July 28, bringing back normal Internet speeds to residents on Saipan.

IT&E has estimated the overall break repairs at about $2 million. Official business losses from the CNMI government have not been released yet, though unofficial reports cite business losses of around $21 million.

Dennis B. Chan | Reporter
Dennis Chan covers education, environment, utilities, and air and seaport issues in the CNMI. He graduated with a degree in English Literature from the University of Guam. Contact him at dennis_chan@saipantribune.com.

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