Public Service Board Will Examine FairPoint E-911 System

Nov 11, 2016

The Vermont Public Service Board has opened an investigation into a January problem with FairPoint’s network that affected the state’s Emergency 911 system.

There have been several incidents affecting the system since FairPoint took it over last year.

An equipment failure caused the 40-minute outage in January during which 911 calls from residential customers were re-routed to state police; and internet-based voice service, which is primarily used by business customers, was lost.

According to the state, it’s one of three breakdowns that have occurred in the system since FairPoint took over its operation last year.

There was a problem in June that prevented 44 calls from getting through. Another in August affected 911 texting.

Jim Porter, director of telecommunications and connectivity for the Department of Public Service, says even though his department has asked the Public Service Board to investigate, the problems don't threaten public safety.

“We had reason to believe that the architecture of certain parts of the system needed a closer look,” he says. “The issues that we’re looking at … they are somewhat arcane issues. There’s no imminent harm to anyone. We feel like the system is working.” 

An earlier investigation by the Public Service Board into a 2014 outage ended when the state said it was satisfied FairPoint had made necessary changes and expressed confidence in the system’s reliability.   

Porter says the fact there continue to be problems doesn’t mean the state was wrong in reaching that conclusion.

“FairPoint agreed to implement and then subsequently did implement every change that our expert had asked for. The current piece being investigated from January was a different part of the system,” he says.

Porter says that part of the system didn’t exist when the earlier investigation was conducted.

But two longtime critics of the department say the fact it gave a clean bill of health to FairPoint earlier means it’s likely to do the same again without giving the system the proper scrutiny.

They’re asking the Public Service Board  for a comprehensive review of the E-911 system.

They say confidentiality agreements between telecommunications companies and the Department of Public Service keep the public in the dark about many telecommunications issues. 

One of the petitioners is Charles Larkin, a retired engineer with the department.

“Even if they did a marvelous job of protecting our interests as an advocate, we have no idea that they did, because it’s all done behind the scenes. So we feel it’s not proven the department is acting in the best interests of the public," Larkin says.

Larkin and co-petitioner Stephen Whitaker are asking the board to appoint a public advocate to represent ratepayers in the FairPoint investigation.  

They say agreements with FairPoint that specify certain levels of service (called SLAs, or Service Level Agreements) have not been in place, hampering the state’s ability to penalize the company.

They also contend the E-911 system has never been fully vetted by an independent engineer.

Barbara Neal, the executive director of the Enhanced 911 Board, says the state has begun the process of conducting a technical review and evaluation of the FairPoint system to determine whether it meets the requirements of the contract with the state.

She says the SLAs don’t take effect until a "final acceptance" of the system by the state.

“The outages themselves caused us to re-examine how some requirements were being met,” Neal said in an email. “We continue to work with FairPoint to achieve final system acceptance and I am optimistic the remaining work will be completed in the coming weeks.”

FairPoint said in a statement that it takes the January incident seriously and is working closely with the state to address its concerns.