Principles for a Successful IP Transition: Robustness and Resiliency

To ensure public safety, consumers need to be able to rely on networks in emergencies. The universal service concept has, perhaps, most frequently been promoted as a way to ensure that all Americans have a way to contact the authorities in the event of an emergency to preserve life and limb. And, so, when it comes to using the telephone or any telecommunications service, a basic question is whether it will work. The public switched telephone network (PSTN), renowned for its reliability for both making and receiving calls, is powered internally so that it can continue operating even when power is lost for days. Moreover, it steers first responders to the address from which a call is made. The same can’t always be said for wireless or fiber-based networks that have battery backup, which often only lasts for hours before failing. Karen Peltz Strauss of the Federal Communications Commission notes that several of the public safety changes made in recent years are rooted in concerns expressed by the disability community. She stated that the requirements to ensure accessible televised emergency announcements and efforts to implement text-to-911 access are two examples that have been strongly advocated for by those with disabilities. Of course, these requirements have practical uses for all people. “In some ways the needs of the disability community are helping pave the way to how we evolve to next generation 911, which is broadband networks,” she said. Peltz Strauss is hopeful that the telephone-to-broadband transition will not lose sight of the need for such access. “When people put their heads together, they find accessibility solutions. If you put the engineers on it, they find solutions.” Advocates for people with disabilities, seniors and those living in rural areas identify public safety as a top concern for the populations they serve, and they raise questions about whether Internet Protocol (IP) networks would function during disasters, noting that when it comes to emergency situations, wireless networks, in particular, aren’t as accurate at pinpointing a location as a phone using the PSTN. Several stressed the need for the FCC to enact stricter laws to make sure those in danger can be found when they place a call to 911. Edyael Casaperalta of the Center for Rural Strategies said there cannot be any reduction in the current rules for wireline networks and that access to public safety must remain available before, during and after an emergency. It is especially important in rural areas. “[In remote areas], you need to have a reliable network. It is not a chance you can take,” she said. “It is one of the biggest issues with the IP network out there.” There is also a question about ease of use. Tony Sarmiento, at Senior Service America, Inc., worries that service issues can’t easily be addressed by the elderly. He noted that during a recent call to Verizon about his FiOS service, a technician asked Sarmiento to get on his hands and knees to access the installed Verizon box to follow instructions to resolve the issue. “I can’t imagine all older people being able to do it,” he said. Others said while all IP-enabled networks won’t be able to replicate exactly what’s available on the PSTN today, that doesn’t mean they won’t be able to provide a high level of service that can ensure the safety of all Americans. Tom Kamber of Older Adults Technology Services said there shouldn’t be “fear mongering” when it comes to IP technology changes, and that soliciting input from a working group made up of stakeholders could prove helpful. “This is a transparency issue,”he said. “I don’t think Verizon or AT&T wants to roll something out where they have a problem.” Matthew Rantanen of Native Public Media also expressed confidence in the resiliency of wireless-based service during natural disasters, arguing that the wireless network is more dependable because it can be brought back online quicker than wired alternatives (e.g., by running on propane or even solar if the power goes out). FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has noted that we need new metrics to measure broadband network quality if we are to successfully transition to IP networks arguing that “developing metrics beyond throughput speed to measure the quality of Internet Protocol (IP) broadband networks is important for helping the IP ecosystem flourish.” He added, “Simply measuring broadband networks by throughput speed does not provide a full picture nor set sufficient performance parameters to support uses with ‘extended’ quality requirements such as healthcare monitoring, emergency services, alarms, etc.” In addition, Wheeler argues that “in transitioning to IP-based networks . . . [we need to be] identifying how reliability can be characterized in a multi-modal environment — where reliability is provided by having many alternate paths, means and/or modes of communications. The FCC should initiate the steps necessary for determining how this aspect of the transition will impact the basic architecture of emergency services.” More recently, Chairman Wheeler identified public safety and national security as the third component of what he calls the Network Compact. “Our networks must continue to be the safety backbone during an emergency,” he stressed. “We must have the ability to summon emergency help, to coordinate an emergency response, and to do so via a network that is as secure as possible from cyber attacks.” Previous posts in this series have explored Ubiquity, Accessibility, Diversity, Openness, Competition, Interconnection, and Trustworthiness. These are all part of the the 10 interrelated principles for a successful IP transition identified in our new report, The New Network Compact: Making the IP Transition Work for Vulnerable Communities. In the coming days, we'll look at additional principles.