Regulator gets tough on dropped 911 calls

Improve network or lose your license, says ICTA

 

Regulators will compel Cayman Islands telecoms companies to upgrade their networks as a matter of “national security” in the wake of a series of connection failures that prevented emergency 911 calls from getting through. 

Alee Fa’amoe, managing director of the Information and Communication Technology Authority, said new requirements would be written into the licensing agreements of LIME, Digicel, C3, Logic and WestStar. 

The frailty of Cayman’s network was highlighted in August when a power failure at a LIME facility in Jamaica was blamed for loss of service that prevented 911 calls from all providers in the Cayman Islands from being connected for six hours. 

Mr. Fa’amoe said there were at least three other occasions in the past year when calls to 911 had been affected because of network problems. 

At the root of the issue is that LIME’s signal control point – key equipment described as the brain of the network – is in Jamaica.  

“What was particularly disturbing in that instance in August is that everything was fine here,” Mr. Fa’amoe said. “There was a power failure in Montego Bay and that caused the signal control point, which services LIME activities, to fail. 

“We can’t afford to rely on another country’s infrastructure where we have no jurisdiction. If Jamaica is hit by a storm, power problems, civil unrest, and as a result we can’t make calls, that is a matter of national security.” 

Under the new regulatory requirements, all telecoms companies will be required to keep all critical infrastructure on island. Mr. Fa’amoe said it is imperative that there are also built-in redundancies and backup systems to prevent loss of service, even when key equipment fails. 

All companies will be required to have a direct link to 911 as a condition of their license, so that failure on one network does not affect everyone on the island. Currently, 911 calls from all networks are routed through LIME – so, if there is a problem for LIME, no calls from any network can get through.  

“The impacts of the last three outages we have seen were due to our reliance on one provider to connect to 911 and on that provider relying on an off-island location for a critical part of its network,” he said. 

A third regulatory requirement will compel all telecoms providers to have network links with each other, adding an additional layer of resilience when technical problems occur. 

Mr. Fa’amoe said security concerns are driving the changes, but insisted they would lead to a general improvement of the telecoms infrastructure that will be good for business. 

“It goes beyond 911 to a question of what is in the best interests of our country and our economy,” he added. “It is an issue that impacts the robustness of the telecoms infrastructure as a whole – we are not a fishing village anymore.” 

He said it is not satisfactory for the Cayman Islands to have island-wide telephone service interruption because of issues in Jamaica. 

“It is one thing to have a customer service call center in another country; it is something different entirely to have the central nervous system of your entire network based in another country, especially if it is a country whose infrastructure has proven to be less reliable than ours.” 

The changes have been discussed in principle with representatives from each of the telecoms companies, and ICTA is now working with 911 and the Ministry of Home Affairs on the technical requirements for establishing direct links with each provider. 

Mr. Fa’amoe said the industry has been aware of the problem for some time but “failed to act.” He said the authority is now reluctantly having to compel the telecoms companies to do so via conditions attached to licensing agreements. 

He said the changes have not met with any real resistance from the telecoms providers, and a working group will be established to move things forward. 

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