A secure and productive society depends on a reliable and resilient energy and telecommunications infrastructure. One striking example was seen in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy in late 2012. That devastating storm caused billions of dollars’ worth of damage and killed at least 160 people in the US. It also left 8.6 million homes in 16 states and the District of Columbia without power, some for weeks or more. As these people soon understood, the storm damage meant much more than going without lights at home because the US power generation system underpins countless other technologies. Many people lacked heat, public transportation, and traffic lights. With electricity out for days, cell towers ran out of backup power. The storm disabled more than one-quarter of all cell towers spread across ten states, leaving millions unable to make phone calls. Similarly, cable operators reported that some 25 percent of households lost access to services including Internet, TV, and phone connections.
Reliable energy—the damage caused by Superstorm Sandy is a stark reminder of the serious problems that threaten the reliability of the US energy transmission system. These problems include an aging infrastructure, insufficient ongoing investment, increased energy demand, and greater reliance on gas-generated electricity. At the national level, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) is responsible for the development and enforcement of mandatory electric reliability standards for the bulk power system. State public utility commissions have the responsibility to ensure the reliability of the system at the distribution level.
Reliable telecommunications—for many decades, traditional wireline (sometimes known as landline) voice networks have delivered reliable and high-quality service, providing value to consumers and contributing to critical public safety objectives. In fact, wireline phone companies have long said that their customers can pick up the phone and get a working dial tone 99.999 percent of the time. As some telephone companies seek to migrate their customers to fiber-based and wireless services, they may fail to invest sufficiently in maintaining their traditional copper networks. Older customers, who are more likely to rely on traditional wireline service, are particularly vulnerable to the deterioration of dial tone quality. Several states have recently opened investigations into the quality of service of traditional telephone companies—known as incumbent local-exchange carriers (ILECs)—because of concerns about possible neglect of copper networks. When ILECs fail to maintain their networks, consumers' safety is jeopardized because some dial tone lines, especially in remote areas, may not function properly and may not be repaired in a timely manner. Dial tone lines provide essential links to public safety, especially in areas where wireless coverage is spotty.
Network Reliability and Resiliency: Policy
Regulators should vigorously enforce strict, mandatory rules for operating the energy infrastructure to ensure safe and reliable energy service for all Americans.
Regulators should establish clear network- reliability metrics and standards, monitor and report on service-provider performance, and enforce sanctions and impose remedial actions if performance falls short.
Policymakers should increase appropriated funds for research, development, and demonstration of technologies that will improve the reliability and security of our transmission systems.
Federal and state policymakers should ensure that communications networks function reliably and consistently during favorable weather conditions and emergencies regardless of whether the telecommunications provider offers services over wireless, copper, fiber-optic, or some other technology.
Among other goals, policymakers should:
- establish clear network-reliability metrics and standards, monitor and report on service-provider performance, and enforce sanctions and remedial actions if performance falls short; and
- ensure that incumbent telecommunications carriers comply with the Federal Communication Commission’s 2016 rules regarding any proposed retirement of the copper network and any proposed discontinuance, reduction, or impairment of service.