Why the FCC Wants to Block Old Phones from Dialing 911

Every day, 911 dispatchers at 6,800 emergency call centers across the U.S. get prank calls, many of which come from disconnected mobile phones. Now, the FCC is thinking about preventing those phones from accessing the 911 network. Today, we’ll dive into this complex and controversial issue, examining it from both sides.

It’s nearly impossible to estimate how many deactivated mobile phones exist in the U.S. Most American adults now own a mobile phone, with many people on their second, third, fourth (or more!) generation of the device. Old phones wind up at e-recycling centers, on the secondary market, tucked away in sock drawers, or—in the case of old smartphones—given to kids as WiFi-enabled devices for apps and games.

These phones, also known as Non-Service Initiated (NSI) devices, have no active carrier subscription for dialtone, or service plan for Internet. The phone is generally not able to make or receive traditional phone calls—with one important exception: by a 1996 FCC mandate, all NSI phones can reach 911.

The argument for closing the provision

For years, some in the 911 industry have begged the FCC to close this provision, noting that the great majority of such calls–99 percent in some cases–are pranks or non-emergency calls. Mobile carriers want to keep things the way they are, arguing that legitimate 911 calls are being placed on NSI phones every day. The FCC is currently studying the issue.

“Maintaining the status quo, as some advocate, is not the solution,” writes Jeffrey Cohen, Chief Counsel at the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International, the nation’s largest organization of public safety communications professionals. He made his comments in a public FCC filing. “The Commission has explored this issue for years, while the harm to [public-safety access points] from abusive, harassing, and fraudulent calls has grown substantially.

“Public safety telecommunicators must take every call seriously. The false nature of the vast majority of NSI calls strains the limited resources of the emergency response community, especially because NSI calls aren’t delivered with location information or a call-back capability. This potentially delays a response to legitimate emergencies, placing the public in greater danger.”

City officials in Philadelphia analyzed data from 2014, and found 911 dispatchers routinely took an average of 1,116 calls per day from people using NSI phones. That represents roughly 14 percent of the daily 911 call volume.

While city officials didn’t say exactly how many of those 1,116 calls were fraudulent, they noted that the problem was widespread. The city is currently grappling with a group of 14 people who can’t seem to stop dialing 911 on their NSI phones—in the first quarter of 2015, this group alone placed 8,086 prank calls using old phones.

It’s difficult to track these devices. NSI phones have no subscriber name or address associated with them, cannot be called back by 911 dispatchers (as they have no real number), are difficult to geo-locate because that technology relies on a device having a subscriber account, and don’t have an Automatic Number Identification number–because of all of the above.

As a result, it’s nearly impossible for police to find people obsessed with calling in 911 hoaxes using deactivated phones.

Telecom weighs in

National 911 organizations are lobbying to cut off all 911 access from NSI phones. The telecom industry is calling for a more nuanced approach.

In comments to the FCC, Sprint, Verizon, AT&T and an industry lobbying group representing smaller carriers came out against the proposal, arguing that consumers expect to be able to reach 911 on any phone and that it would be time-consuming and cost-prohibitive to upgrade.

They’re joined by the National Network to End Domestic Violence, which says 60 percent of its member organizations give domestic violence victims NSI devices for the express purpose of calling 911 if they have to.

Complicating the issue, perhaps, is a technical bug inherent in mobile phones. If you dial 911 shortly after reconnecting to the network (say, after driving out of a tunnel), your legitimate phone could show up as an NSI device. It’s a similar story if you’re roaming on a competing network.

“Universal access to 911 is critical,” writes Mission Critical Partners, a 911 industry consultancy. “In considering restricting access to 911 for even a discreet minority of the population, the Commission should ensure that there are no alternative solutions that could rectify the problem while preserving 911 access for legitimate users of NSI devices. Lives may hang in the balance.”

What’s the solution?

Groups on both sides of the issue agree that in an ideal world, we would allow legitimate 911 calls on any device, and figure out a way to prevent pranksters from making fraudulent 911 calls. In practical terms, those goals are largely mutually exclusive. Here are a few possible solutions:

#1: Prevent all NSI phones from dialing 911: Doing this would instantly reduce the number of prank 911 phones calls. If Philadelphia is any indication, this would represent a roughly 14 percent reduction in 911 calls overnight—which means the remaining 86 percent of emergency calls would get a higher standard of service. People with NSI phones and experiencing a real emergency would have to figure out an alternate way to dial 911. The carriers would have to upgrade existing technology to make sure legitimate subscribers weren’t getting inadvertently blocked from calling 911.

#2: Provide 911 centers with the authority to require carriers to block specific problem numbers based on their discretion (and not the carriers’): NSI phones don’t transmit official Automatic Number Identification data, but they do transmit a (mostly) unique identifying number that 911 carriers could use to identify specific NSI phones. Additionally, 911 centers could divert or block problem numbers on an extreme case-by-case basis, by adopting technology from industry vendors (like Avaya).

#3: Do nothing in the short term: A few telecom operators have argued in favor of maintaining the status quo for now, saying that thousands of legitimate 911 calls are placed on NSI phones each year. “The public interest in forwarding legitimate 911 calls outweighs the inconveniences caused by bad actors,” writes the Competitive Carriers Association. Carriers have also called for a more comprehensive study of the scale of the problem, saying the data is uneven across different jurisdictions.

#4: Fund emergency prepaid phones for at-risk populations: Several million American adults have no mobile phone subscription, putting them at risk of not being able to call 911 easily. Rather than providing at-risk populations with deactivated NSI phones, the industry could put more money toward giving people emergency mobile phones with a limited number of minutes, usable only for 911.

#5: Provide a mechanism for 911 dispatchers to call back NSI phones: The ability to call back NSI phones could cut down on the number of chronic pranksters. In a previous report, the FCC said this option would be difficult to implement.

The takeaway

The mobile landscape today is very different from the landscape back in 1996, when the FCC first opened up emergency access to deactivated mobile phones. That year, manufacturers had just created the first clamshell phone, and 96 percent of American households still had a landline. Less than 20 percent of the population had a cell phone.

Today, mobile phones are universal, with at least one carrier providing totally free mobile service. Motivated prank callers can easily get their hands on fresh deactivated phones, continuing to call 911 even as their old phones get blocked.

Every day, in 911 dispatch centers nationwide, emergency lines are plagued by pranksters who are careless at best, and malicious at worst, who hide behind NSI phones because they know police have virtually no way of finding them.

Short of a nationwide transition to next-generation 911 (a topic I’ve covered extensively on this blog), it seems the most prudent decision would be to study the data more closely, so that we can better understand the extent of the problem.

Anecdotally, 911 dispatchers tell me the problem is large, and growing. Simultaneously, it’s never been easier to contact 911 if you legitimately need to.

Given the data supports it, cutting off 911 access to deactivated mobile phones (coupled with an education campaign and expanded access to emergency phones) makes sense. It’s time to respectfully retire this 19-year-old relic of public policy.

What do you think? Should the FCC ban deactivated phones from connecting to 911? Share your thoughts in the comments section below, and follow the conversation on Twitter: @Fletch911.

Want more technology, news and information from Avaya? Be sure to check out the Avaya Podcast Network landing page at http://avaya.com/APN. There, you will find additional podcasts from industry events, such as Avaya Evolutions and INTEROP, as well as other informative series by the APN staff.

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Public comments, suggestions, corrections and loose change is all graciously accepted 😉 Until next week. . . dial carefully.

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