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Highlights

What GAO Found

The number of wireless outages attributed to a physical incident—a natural disaster, accident, or other manmade event, such as vandalism—increased from 2009 to 2016, as reported to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). During this time, the number of outages substantially increased from 189 to 1,079 outages, with most of the increase occurring from 2009 to 2011. FCC officials said this increase was due in part to growth in wireless customers and wireless infrastructure. Almost all outages attributed to a physical incident were due to an accident, such as damage to a cable due to a digging error (74 percent) or a natural disaster (25 percent). However, outages due to a natural disaster had a longer median duration (ranging from 19 to 36 hours), which was more than twice as long as outages caused by an accident. Power failures and failures in other providers' networks also play a role in wireless outages attributed to physical incidents. For instance, carriers reported that 87 percent of wireless outages attributed to a physical incident were due to a failure in another provider's network on which they rely.

Since 2013, federal agencies and industry have taken actions to improve the resiliency of wireless networks. For example, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and FCC charter federal advisory committees that have examined resiliency issues and potential solutions, such as sharing infrastructure during emergencies. FCC also proposed a rule that would disclose how individual wireless carriers' networks performed during emergency events. In response, an industry coalition announced an initiative—the Wireless Network Resiliency Cooperative Framework—whereby carriers agreed to allow roaming on each other's networks and aggregated statistics to be published on how networks performed during emergency events. This initiative prompted FCC to not adopt its proposed rule. FCC said it would engage with industry about the framework's implementation and use, but FCC has limited formal plans to oversee or spread knowledge of the framework:

  • FCC developed a plan to track the completion of initial implementation tasks outlined in the framework, but this plan does not include steps to track or evaluate any outputs or outcomes from the framework.
  • FCC and industry documents describe broad goals for the framework, such as advancing information sharing during and after emergency events, but neither FCC nor industry has set any specific measures to help determine whether the framework achieves these broad goals.
  • Although some public safety officials and other stakeholders GAO contacted were not aware of the framework, FCC did not have plans to actively communicate information about the framework to these audiences.

More robust measures and a better plan to monitor the framework would help FCC collect information on the framework and evaluate its effectiveness. Such steps could help FCC address any challenges or decide whether further action is needed. Also, by promoting awareness about the framework, FCC would help public safety officials and other industry participants to be well positioned to use the framework to help them prepare for or respond to emergency events.

Why GAO Did This Study

Americans increasingly rely on mobile wireless communications for safety-related communications like calling 911 and receiving weather alerts. Mobile wireless networks face risks from physical incidents including extreme weather events and intentional and accidental damage. For example, in 2017 several major hurricanes damaged wireless network infrastructure, leaving many U.S. citizens without reliable access to wireless communications.

GAO was asked to review federal efforts to improve the resiliency of wireless networks following natural disasters and other physical incidents. This report examines: (1) trends in mobile wireless outages reported to FCC since 2009 and (2) actions federal agencies and industry have taken since 2013 (after Hurricane Sandy) to improve wireless network resiliency, among other objectives. GAO analyzed wireless outage data from 2009 to 2016 (4 years before and after Hurricane Sandy); reviewed FCC, DHS, and industry documents; and interviewed stakeholders who represented a variety of perspectives, such as industry, public safety, and consumer groups. GAO assessed FCC's efforts to monitor an industry initiative to improve wireless network resiliency against federal internal control standards.

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Recommendations

FCC should work with industry to develop specific performance measures for the Wireless Network Resiliency Cooperative Framework, monitor the framework's outcomes, and promote awareness of it. FCC agreed with the recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Federal Communications Commission 1. The Chairman of FCC should work with industry, to the extent practical, to develop specific and measurable objectives for the Wireless Network Resiliency Cooperative Framework, such as outputs to measure the extent of the framework's use. (Recommendation 1)
Closed - Implemented
In 2017, GAO reported that FCC had taken some actions to improve wireless network resiliency-that is, the ability to prepare for and adapt to changing conditions and withstand and recover rapidly from disruptions. For example, FCC regularly analyzed data on wireless outages during the regular course of business and during emergency events. FCC met with each nationwide wireless carrier annually to discuss trends in the carrier's outages. FCC also proposed a rule that would disclose how individual wireless carriers' networks performed during emergency events. In response, an industry coalition announced a voluntary initiative-the Wireless Network Resiliency Cooperative Framework-whereby carriers agreed to allow roaming on each other's networks and aggregated statistics to be published on how networks performed during emergency events. This initiative prompted FCC to not adopt its proposed rule. FCC said it would engage with industry about the framework's implementation and use. Although FCC had limited formal plans to oversee the framework, it had not identified any specific, measurable objectives that could be used to determine whether the framework meets its broad goals. Therefore, GAO recommended that FCC should work with industry, to the extent practical, to develop specific and measurable objectives for the framework, such as outputs to measure the extent of the framework's use. In June 2018, FCC issued a public notice to seek industry input on how best to measure the extent of the framework's use and its effectiveness. In November 2018, FCC identified five outputs to measure participating carriers' use of and outputs of the framework, and FCC then sought information from carriers on each of these five outputs to gauge the framework's use during the two previous hurricane seasons. Due to these actions, FCC is better positioned to both monitor and collect information on the framework's effectiveness as well as identify whether FCC needs to take additional steps to further promote wireless network resiliency.
Federal Communications Commission 2. The Chairman of FCC should develop a plan to monitor the outputs and outcomes of the Wireless Network Resiliency Cooperative Framework and document the results of its monitoring to evaluate its effectiveness and identify whether changes are needed. (Recommendation 2)
Closed - Implemented
A wireless industry coalition established the Wireless Network Resiliency Cooperative Framework (framework) in 2016 to advance wireless service continuity and information sharing during and after emergencies. FCC is responsible for monitoring industry actions and FCC had taken some steps to monitor the framework's implementation, such as developing a plan to track certain tasks related to the framework. However, in 2017, GAO reported that FCC's plan did not include any steps to document and assess the overall effect of the framework on the resiliency of wireless networks. In particular, FCC's plan did not track any outputs or outcomes over time that speak to the results of the framework. Overall, by monitoring the outputs and outcomes of the framework, FCC could determine where further changes are needed to help ensure that wireless networks are resilient. Therefore, GAO recommended that FCC develop a plan to monitor the outputs and outcomes of the framework and document the results of its monitoring. In 2020, GAO confirmed that FCC developed a tracking document to monitor the framework. In this document, FCC lists the activities it has performed and continues to perform to collect information about the framework's effectiveness. For example, according to FCC, following an event where the framework is activated (such as a natural disaster), FCC conducts a full inquiry into what occurred on various communications platforms in the areas affected by the event by inviting comments from all sectors of the communications industry and other stakeholders. FCC then prepares a report that includes analysis and recommendations to address failures in restoration of communications services. As a result of this tracking document, FCC will gain insight on the framework's overall effectiveness and FCC can determine where further changes are needed.
Federal Communications Commission 3. The Chairman of FCC should promote awareness about the elements of and any outcomes from the Wireless Network Resiliency Cooperative Framework among state and local public safety officials and other industry stakeholders, such as through existing outreach mechanisms and government-industry forums. (Recommendation 3)
Closed - Implemented
Americans are increasingly reliant on mobile wireless communications in their day-to-day lives, including for making 911 calls and receiving weather alerts during natural disasters. In 2013, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) held hearings to examine the resilience of these wireless networks during Hurricane Sandy and then issued a notice of proposed rulemaking to promote transparency to the public on how wireless carriers compare in keeping their networks operational during natural disasters and emergency events. In response, an industry coalition announced the Wireless Network Resiliency Cooperative Framework (framework), a voluntary initiative designed to advance wireless service continuity and enhance coordination and communication, both among carriers and between carriers and government. FCC said it would continue to engage with industry on the implementation and use of the framework. In 2017, GAO reported that FCC had not communicated the framework to all state and local public-safety officials and wireless carriers, potentially limiting its effectiveness. Some state agencies GAO interviewed were unaware of the framework. Without greater awareness of the framework, state and local public safety officials could remain unaware of tools or other improvements available through the framework that could help them prepare for or respond to an emergency. Therefore, GAO recommended that FCC should promote awareness about the elements of and any outcomes from the framework among state and local public safety officials and other industry stakeholders. In 2019, GAO confirmed that FCC had taken steps to promote awareness of the framework by issuing two public notices and highlighting the framework in reports on specific emergency events. FCC also referenced the framework in meetings with public safety officials from different levels of government and wireless carriers. As a result of these efforts, FCC is better positioned to help public safety officials and other industry participants understand and use the framework to prepare for or help mitigate the risks to wireless networks posed by natural disasters and other emergencies.

Full Report

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