August 27, 2015 - 12:57 pm
By Tom Wheeler | FCC Chairman

Imagine a community with tens of thousands of residents suffering a communications blackout for more than 48 hours. Not only were residents unable to send emails or make phone calls, their banking system shut down, leaving people unable to make credit card transactions or withdraw money from an ATM. This is not a hypothetical. It happened last month in the Northern Marinas Islands, a U.S. territory in the Western Pacific Ocean. The cause: a break in an undersea cable. While this happened on the other side of the world, it's a cause for concern for all of us. Undersea cables carry more than 95 percent of all U.S. international voice, data, and Internet traffic. Today, I'm circulating a proposal to my colleagues that would enhance the security and reliability of this key piece of the Internet's physical infrastructure.

There are approximately 60 submarine (or "undersea") cables that provide connectivity between the mainland U.S. and consumers in Alaska, Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Marianas, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, as well as virtually all connectivity between the U.S. and the rest of the world. Many submarine cables are jointly owned and operated by multiple companies.

While submarine cables are vital to America's economic and national security, licensees currently only report outages on an ad hoc basis, and the information that we receive is too limited to be of use. In contrast, other communications providers — including wireline, wireless, and satellite —are required to report outages to the FCC's Network Outage Reporting System (NORS).

Why are outage reports important? Think of the old saw about how "you can't manage what you don't measure." 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.

The FCC needs to get timely information about submarine cable outages, with enough detail to understand the nature and impact of any damage and disruption to communications, help mitigate any impact on emergency services and consumers, and assist in service restoration. More consistent reporting on submarine cable outages will improve the FCC's ability to spot trends, address systemic issues, and inform policy making.

At next month's open meeting, the Commission will consider a draft NPRM that proposes to require submarine cable licensees to report significant outages in appropriate detail through NORS, where other communications providers already report outages.

Modern communications networks are increasingly interconnected. The failure of a single cable can have a ripple effect on multiple networks. Better reporting about the status of undersea cables will help us better anticipate and prevent disruptions to service.