CenturyLink 911 outage investigations underway; AG seeks comment from locals

CenturyLink could be hit with both FCC and UTC fines.

CenturyLink technical difficulties last month left Washington residents without access to emergency services when dialing 911. Now Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson wants to hear how the 12-hour outage impacted locals.

Local emergency call disruptions began at about 8:30 p.m. on Dec. 27. Callers reported hearing a busy tone, when using the 911 number. Residents have until Jan. 12 to share what they experienced because of the outage. Comments on the most recent 911 outage can be sent to 911outage@atg.wa.gov.

Twice in four years has a disruption on CenturyLink’s part caused 911 issues. In 2014 another outage lasted six hours.

“For the second time, CenturyLink has fallen short of its obligation to provide reliable 911 services for Washingtonians,” Ferguson said in a news release. “If you called for help during this outage, only to be met with a busy signal, please share your story with my office. We want to know exactly how CenturyLink’s failure impacted the people of our state.”

A statement from CenturyLink says the outage was caused by a faulty network management card from a third-party equipment vendor that caused invalid traffic replication. Also compromised was the company’s visibility into its network management system, impairing its ability to troubleshoot. “Steps are being taken to help prevent the issue from reoccurring,” the statement says. “We are in contact with the WUTC (Utilities & Transportation Commission) and will cooperate fully with any investigation.”

On Dec. 28, both the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the state Utilities & Transportation Commission (UTC) announced they would be conducting investigations into the latest outage.

The UTC investigation already is underway, said Kate Griffith of the organization. She anticipates the probe will take between 6 to 18 months, due to its “more complex and technical” nature.

After its completion, UTC staff then will issue a report and, depending on the findings, the commission could take formal action against the company. That action could include penalties and compliance reporting requirements.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai called the outage “unacceptable.” He directed the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau to investigate the cause and impact of the outage, as well as the outage impact on other providers’ 911 services.

Both agencies imposed large fines after conducting investigations into the 2014 mishap.

In 2015 the FCC slapped CenturyLink with a $16 million fine. And in 2016 UTC announced they would charge the telecommunications company just short of $2.9 million — a fraction of the $11.5 million fine Ferguson had urged they impose.

“Bottom line – CenturyLink is getting off with a slap on the wrist,” Ferguson said in 2016 after the UTC announcement.

More than 10 million people in Washington, Minnesota and North Carolina were unable to make calls to 911 during the 2014 outage, according to FCC documents. And CenturyLink failed to timely notify all affected call centers that answer the emergency calls.

CenturyLink was required to create and adhere to a compliance plan, filled with proactive risk management principles constructed to reduce the likelihood of 911 failures in the future and plan for fast notification to emergency response call centers in the case of another outage, the consent decree states.

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