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Hey you! Better 'fess up to submarine cable cockups, FCC demands

Regulator puts out new rules to bring internet in line with telephone world

Incredible as it may seem, there are currently no rules around the reporting of outages in submarine cables.

On Thursday, America's Federal Communications Commission (FCC) tried to rectify that by putting out new rules for public comment that would make it obligatory for US companies to report any outages that saw more than 50 per cent of the traffic going through them affected for 30 minutes or more.

There are roughly 60 submarine cables that connect to the United States. Not only do they represent the internet access in its entirety for many US territories (Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa, Puerto Rico, and others), but they also carry 95 per cent of the US' international internet traffic, as well as voice and data.

And yet, there is no requirement for the companies that run the cable to report when something goes wrong.

FCC chair Tom Wheeler noted in a blog post last month that the current system was "ad hoc" and the information that the FCC does receive is "too limited to be of use."

In 2008, the FCC passed rules that require submarine cable companies to provide them with data about their cable and any outages, but it was only able to apply them to new cables – which it did by making the provision of such data a condition of receiving a license.

As a result, just 2 of the 62 licensees are currently obliged to provide information through the "Undersea Cable Information System." For the rest, it is voluntary. To date, that approach has not been very successful. The FCC has only ever received information from 14 of the licenses, some of which also stopped after their first test messages. Many have made it plain to the regulatory that they don't intend to start any time soon.


In 2014, the FCC estimated that the total cost to all licensees of carrying out its requests in full would be $550,000 a year, or roughly $9,000 per licensee. But this was working on an assumption of two hours per report and a cost of $50 per hour to produce the report. In the latest documents, that hourly rate has increased to $80 per hour but even so, FCC Commissioner Michael O'Rielly questioned both the time and the cost per hour. O'Reilly was the only one out of the five Commissioners who raised significant concerns about the proposal; the rest support it.

By contrast to submarine cables, the operators of all other forms of communications – wired, wireless, and satellite – are required to provide information on any outages to the FCC through its Network Outage Reporting System (NORS).

Those reports are relatively detailed and require communications companies to say when the event happened, where, approximately how many people were impacted, and to provide a description of the incident. Each report, complete with contact details for the person who can answer questions about it, is then assigned its own ID and is available to anyone else registered to the system.

Making the case for expanding NORS to submarine cables, Wheeler noted: "The data we collect from NORS has allowed us to analyze outage trends and recommend solutions to make these networks more resilient and reliable. We should do the same for these undersea cables."

Even though the internet is famously designed to route around any problems, the loss of a main connection can effectively cut countries off from the wider internet. There is a large and increasing number of backbone cables across the world, but the figures are still very small compared to the number of users, and incidents such as ships accidentally slicing through underwater cables can cause days of disruption.

The FCC argues that "more consistent reporting on submarine cable outages will improve the FCC's ability to spot trends, address systemic issues, and inform policy making."

The rules have not been released yet – they should be published by the end of the week. And they are expected to be open-ended, rather than a set of rules applying the same standards as with other communication networks. As such, it is difficult to know when exactly the rules will be finalized and approved, especially if they meet resistance from the 60 licensees.

And in other news ...

You know those really rushed snippets at the end of radio contests that warn you that you may only buy one ticket, or you can't buy one if you live in a certain state, or that despite the clear suggestion otherwise the odds of you actually winning as so small as to be largely pointless?

Well we may soon see the end of them following a separate FCC vote at its meeting on Thursday. The Commission decided to usher in the internet era and allow for broadcast stations to post contest terms online rather than have to tack them onto the end of their ads. In their place, radio stations will be required to say where people can find the full rules online. ®

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