Will Power Be the Next Big Issue in Communications and Network Reliability?
Are public networks as reliable as they should be--and whose responsibility is it to improve the situation?
A series of recent natural disasters has raised questions about whether communications networks are as reliable as they should be. Usually such discussions involve a tug-of-war between regulators and carriers. Now, however, a remark by an FCC Commissioner raises the intriguing possibility that power utilities might be drawn, willingly or otherwise, into the process of improving the reliability and resiliency of telecom networks.
At the opening of an FCC field hearing on network reliability, Commissioner Ajit Pai said he had heard "complaints that local power companies would not coordinate with network operators. If this is true," he added,
"it has to change. These companies share poles and conduits with each other, and a coordinated response to service restoration can bring all networks back online more quickly and efficiently. Disjointed service repair efforts only prolong the time that customers are left in the dark or cut off from communications. And utilities and communications companies need to start planning for the next disaster now, looking at ways to harden their networks to avoid future outages." [Emphasis added]
Was Commissioner Pai just making an offhand remark, floating a trial balloon on a new utility/telecom regulatory paradigm, or something in between? It is premature to draw any conclusions: it seems that this was more than a casual observation but less than a proposal. It is also unclear whether he was thinking of a regulatory mandate or a voluntary initiative.
With these caveats in mind, let's explore the implications of involving utilities in communications reliability for various stakeholders.
The challenges for telecom regulators fall into the short-, medium- and long-term horizons:
Their short-term responsibility is to investigate the incidents that Commissioner Pai mentioned: were they isolated incidents or signs of a larger, systemic problem? Did carriers follow existing best practices, or were these ignored in favor of cost savings?
Second, regulators must recognize that, regardless of whether there should be an expanded role for power utilities in bolstering network reliability, carriers must do more to improve network reliability and resiliency. This will be no easy task; answering these questions and implementing solutions will take years. As noted during a presentation at a recent FCC workshop, improving the resiliency of telecom networks is unlikely "without stronger regulation because of fierce market competition, pressure on profits, consolidation and [a] strong political lobby." In other words, expect lengthy rulemakings and court challenges to any new regulatory proposals.
Finally, regulators must carefully consider the implications of increasing the interdependence between telecom and utilities. Historically, telecom and power networks have been built and operated independently of each other, and for good reasons. In the "good old days" of POTS, the "gold-plated," self-powered PSTN delivered end-to-end reliability of 99.999%, and remained operational even during blackouts.
Increasing interdependence between these traditionally separate (but equally critical) industries could actually have potentially adverse impacts on reliability. Since the 1965 Northeast Blackout, power utilities have refused to become dependent on commercial telecom networks for their operational traffic or control signals so that they can maintain and restore power regardless of any disruption to commercial telecom networks. As the New York Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) explained to the FCC, "in the modern, networked world, impacts to one or more systems...will eventually cascade to the other systems that rely upon them."
Making utilities more responsible for the maintenance of communications reliability would be a boon for carriers, who are more concerned about the price tag for network reliability in a competitive telecom marketplace. For example, some wireless carriers opposed the FCC's (ultimately unsuccessful) post-Katrina wireless back-up power rules on grounds of cost: some carriers reportedly claimed that the cost of meeting proposed FCC back-up power rules at all 210,000+ cell towers and roof-mounted cell sites nationwide could approach $15,000 per site. One has to wonder, though, whether the competitive marketplace could reduce these costs with new and innovative power solutions and greater collaboration among carriers for backup power.
But even the most ambitious initiative to shift responsibility to power utilities cannot escape the fact that the principal responsibility for improving network reliability remains with the carriers: indeed, the FCC recently found that had carriers used best practices in engineering and protecting their networks, most outages during the June 2012 derecho storm could have been prevented. Commissioner Pai acknowledged as much when he called for both utilities and carriers to find "ways to harden their networks to avoid future outages."
Finally, when it comes to the question of utilities' role in network reliability, the telecoms need to "get their story straight" about the relationship between utilities and carriers. When it comes to the Smart Grid, the telcos lately have played up their ability to boost the reliability of the power grid. For the carriers to turn around and now say that power utilities need to do more to improve reliability of telecom networks is ironic at best and alarming at worst.
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