Jul 10, 2024

State files complaint against Windstream after investigating Nebraska 911 outages

Posted Jul 10, 2024 6:00 PM

Aaron Sanderford

Nebraska Examiner

LINCOLN — The 911 outages that slammed eastern Nebraska in late 2023 and early 2024 led the Nebraska Public Service Commission this month to file a formal complaint against Windstream, the telecommunications company whose systems failed. 

The commission’s monthslong investigation, which included testimony from 911 center directors, Windstream representatives and state emergency responders, found that the company might have violated state regulations, Chairman Dan Watermeier said.

“The complaint provides the commission the ability to hold the carrier accountable through punitive actions,” Watermeier said in a statement issued Tuesday about three major disruptions of 911 service over the past year.

Outages fueled response

Those disruptions, which occurred on Sept. 2-3, Nov. 28 and Jan. 13, spurred calls from the PSC and state lawmakers for possible changes, including proposed legislation aimed at speeding up the state’s public hearings on 911 outages.

The PSC is Nebraska’s catch-all regulator. Its duties include regulating emergency communications, including 911 service, and helping first responders communicate across radio systems.

Windstream’s troubles in providing stable 911 service in Nebraska trace to Aug. 28, when a contractor working for a third party accidentally struck a City of Lincoln sprinkler line buried along Centennial Mall, the commission’s documents show.

A resulting leak into a transformer room at Windstream’s Lincoln facility at 1440 M St. sparked a fire and “small explosion” that shorted out a grounding wire. This killed the power and forced systems used by the 911 centers onto a backup generator. 

What happened after leak is key

But much of the commission’s complaint focused on what happened 13 hours later, when the company’s backup generator failed and ate through six hours of battery backup. That stranded 911 callers in roughly 17 of 20 911 centers in southeast Nebraska.

Then in November and January, separate problems with internet network instability isolated Windstream’s Lincoln office and required a restart that left Lincoln’s 911 center down for nearly an hour and several others out for up to two hours.

At one point during testimony, David Sankey, director of the PSC division that handles emergency communications, said the outages left 911 calls disrupted across much of southeast Nebraska. He called it a critical failure.

Sankey also said Windstream failed to notify the state of the November outage within 14 days, as regulations require.

The PSC found that Windstream had not done enough work to prepare, including proper testing of backup systems for power, network switching, redundancy and more, according to the complaint that identified possible regulatory violations.

Company responds

Windstream’s representative who testified before the PSC, Brad Hedrick, oversees operations in a five-state area that includes Nebraska. He said Windstream has since contracted out for backup services, including generators and power and network switches.

The company said it has also redesigned its network to reduce the chances of single points of failure, boost the system’s redundancies and improve its reliability. It’s also worked to boost the number of “selective routers” handling 911 traffic, Hedrick said.

Scott Morris, a spokesman for Windstream, shared a statement Tuesday with the Examiner saying, “Windstream is committed to being a reliable communications provider to Nebraskans, and we will continue to work with the commission on this matter.” 

The PSC complaint has been served to Windstream. A public hearing will follow, and Windstream can respond. The PSC will issue a decision after.