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December 17th, 2006

Ever wished there were some sort of record of cell phone service providers’ outages, so you could see who provides reliable service before signing up? The FCC keeps one, but you can’t see it.

The Federal Communications Commission does know something about outages, however. It has collected outage reports from telecommunications firms since the early 1990s. Any time a carrier has an outage that affects 900,000 caller minutes – say a 30-minute outage impacting 30,000 customers – it must report it to the Network Outage Reporting System.

In the beginning, the reports all were from “wire line” telephone providers and were available to the public. But in 2004, the commission ordered wireless firms to supply outage reports as well. But at the same time, it removed all outage reports from public view and exempted them from the Freedom of Information Act.

The FCC took the action at the urging of the Department of Homeland Security, which argued that publication of the reports would “jeopardize our security efforts.”

“The same outage data that can be so useful … to identify and remedy critical vulnerabilities and make the network infrastructure stronger can, in hostile hands, be used to exploit those vulnerabilities to undermine or attack networks,” DHS said.

It’s unclear how terrorists would use this information; perhaps with an appeal to the same magic force that would let them use an ounce of shampoo in an 8-ounce bottle to take down an airplane.

But it sure is clear how this policy benefits the cellular companies.

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