FCC fines CenturyLink $16M over multistate 911 outage

CenturyLink headquarters
A photo of the CenturyLink headquarters in Monroe, La.
Courtesy CenturyLink

The Federal Communications Commission has fined CenturyLink $16 million for a multistate 911 outage that prevented millions of people from making emergency calls over a six-hour period last year. It's the largest 911-related fine ever levied by the government agency.

The FCC says the outage occurred in April 2014. It affected six counties in Minnesota and a total of 11 million people in seven states.

CenturyLink agreed to pay the $16 million under the terms of a settlement announced Monday, while Intrado Communications, which provides 911 support for the company, was fined $1.4 million.

The outage was not an isolated incident or natural disaster and was preventable, according to the FCC. It was a so-called "sunny day" outage. A 911 call routing facility in Colorado stopped directing emergency calls to 81 centers, or Public Safety Answering Points, in the seven states. The outage was caused by "a software coding error in the Colorado facility."

Those types of outages are on the rise because 911 has evolved into a system that's more technologically advanced and the interaction between old and new systems is "introducing fragility into the communication system," the FCC's investigation report said.

The outage resulted in over 6,600 missed emergency calls that included domestic violence, assault, motor vehicle accidents, a heart attack, an overdose and an intruder breaking into a residence, according to the FCC.

In addition to Minnesota, the dropped 911 service affected parts of Washington State, North Carolina, Florida, South Carolina and Pennsylvania.

"Americans need to be confident that the service they use to reach first responders is reliable and accessible in their time of need," FCC chairman Tom Wheeler said in a statement. "Providers have a responsibility to ensure that Americans can use 911 to call for help any time. When a company fails to live up to its obligations, it will be held accountable."

The FCC settled with Verizon for $3.4 million last month in connection with the April 2014 outage. Verizon served emergency call centers in California.

CenturyLink corporate representatives said in a statement that the outage was unprecedented and they're taking measures to ensure reliable emergency communication.

"CenturyLink takes 911 reliability very seriously," according to the statement. "This outage was caused by a third-party vendor's equipment failure that had never occurred before and we worked with the vendor to implement measures to ensure that this type of failure will not happen again."

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