Citing terror threats, FCC curbs access to the kind of network outage data that helps in negotiating better service-level agreements, and helps mitigate risks. Is this a smokescreen for carriers or a necessary change in policy?
Before negotiating telecommunications contracts for clients out West, Bill Harris made a habit of reviewing network outage reports filed with the Federal Communications Commission, scanning for clues that carriers had laid fiber on open ground in areas prone to wildfires.
"Its not something a typical customer would think of, but if Im in California, would it be important? Absolutely," said Harris, a partner with CCS Partners LLC, in Louisville, Ky. "You may negotiate on a certain point, and [the account team] would look at you as though to say, That will never happen. Then you pull out the outage report and show them."
By knowing where carriers had experienced problems, Harris said he was better prepared to discuss SLAs (service-level agreements) and to procure redundant services where necessary. But hes now lost that advantage. After more than a decade of making such carrier outage reports available to the public, the FCC in August ruled that the information will be kept secret, lest it fall into the hands of terrorists.
At the same time, the FCC has ordered more carriers, including wireless and satellite operators, to begin turning over more-detailed data about a broader variety of network outages.
The policy reversal reflects a larger practice in post-9/11 Washington of demanding an ever-increasing amount of data from corporate America while holding back information from the public. The government will know whats happening in the networks, but for businesses seeking to compare network performance and service availability, there no longer will be objective data to consult.
"Before, you could tell which carriers were strong in what areas. I think this decision puts users in a weakened position," Harris said. "With that information going dark, you really dont have any information you can rely upon. Youre going to be relying on marketing information."
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In addition to giving customers a clearer picture of the performance history of the carriers they negotiate with, the public availability of outage data had prompted service providers to improve standards and practices, said Brian Moir, a lawyer who represents the eCommerce & Telecommunications User Group, in Washington.
"Weve made significant progress over the last decade getting carriers to address basic operational issues like best practices. There werent any best practices until we started pressing for that data," Moir said.
Many outages affecting large numbers of customers are caused by storms and accidental wire cuts, but a fair number are caused by seemingly avoidable problems, such as technicians failure to follow standard procedures, inadequate safety precautions, maintenance troubles and even theft , past outage records show.
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