The FCC Proposes Creation of a Three-Digit Dialing Code, 988, for Suicide Prevention

At its December 12, 2019 Open Meeting, the FCC adopted a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM”) that seeks comments on the establishment of a new three-digit dialing code (988) for use in contacting the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.  Recognizing the growing number of suicide attempts, especially among military veterans; Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer communities; and teens, the FCC is proposing to require all telecommunications carriers and interconnected VoIP providers (and possibly one-way VoIP providers) to make necessary changes to their networks to ensure callers can dial 988 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK).  Access would be required within 18 months of the effective date of the new rules.  The NPRM proposes to carry out the Suicide Hotline Implementation Act.  Comments are sought on all related issues, including those discussed below.

The FCC believes that a three-digit dialing code will increase the effectiveness of suicide prevention efforts.  It seeks comments on how texting can be incorporated into this proposal.  The use of 988 was deemed to be a better approach than repurposing an existing N11 code.  The FCC notes 988 is not an Area Code and is used less as a Central Office Code (i.e., NXX) than many other three-digit codes considered.  Further, all IP switches can accommodate use of the 988 code and legacy switches can be upgraded more easily to handle 988 than to repurpose an existing N11 code, according to the NPRM.  Based on a study by the North American Numbering Council (“NANC”), there are approximately 6000 switches that cannot support 988, including some 1400 switches that do not have a path to IP and, would therefore need to be replaced.

The NPRM seeks comments on the network changes associated with implementing the 988 code, including network and trunking capacity issues.  As noted above, the FCC proposes direct routing the 988 calls to 800-273-8255, rather than to some other numbers, such as the closest local crisis center.  Once again, the Commission notes TDM-based switches cannot translate a three-digit code into a toll-free number but must, instead, translate the code into a POTS number and asks for comments addressing this problem.

Recognizing there are areas of the country (95 Area Codes) where there is both seven-digit dialing and the digits 988 operating as an NXX code, the FCC ponders potential solutions.  One would be to introduce a network dialing delay after 988 is dialed.  However, that approach could cause confusion for the caller or misrouting of calls.  Alternatively, the FCC could order nationwide 10-digit dialing, which is already mandatory when an Area Code runs out of NXX codes.  Finally, the FCC wonders whether the matter should be left to state PUCs.

Next the FCC proposes an 18-month implementation period to open and operate the 988 code.  However, it seeks comments on other periods (one or two years) and whether special rules should be created for carriers with multiple TDM switches or rural telephone companies. 

The Commission proposes that each carrier bear and recover its own costs for implementation.  The NPRM evaluates benefits and costs for implementing the 988 code.  Staff estimates the first-year costs at $570 million, second year costs at $170 million and subsequent year costs at $50 million.  It uses the Department of Transportation’s “Value of a Statistical Life” data to conclude a 0.1% reduction in suicides produces a $2.4 billion present value over ten years at a one-time $367 million in present value implementation cost.

Comments are due 30 days after publication in the Federal Register, with reply comments due no later than 90 days after publication.

Discussion

Given the push by Congress in adopting the Suicide Hotline Improvement Act and the technical study by the NANC, it is quite likely that the FCC will adopt rules requiring carriers and interconnected VoIP providers to open and operate the 988 code for connection to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.  The details of which are uncertain.  Expect a prompt deadline, likely no longer than two years, with some possible exceptions for telephone companies with TDM-based switches and remotes.  Further, there will not likely be any special cost recovery permitted.

Many CLECs and VoIP providers that already have IP-based networks should be able to implement the new dialing code without major delay or expense (based on inputs received by the FCC).  However, some ILECs and those CLECs that either operate their own TDM-switches or purchase network elements from ILECs may face more serious complications.  In either event, all service providers should consider examining their networks and developing a plan to implement the 988 code requirements.   Those service providers that see problems, especially in terms of timing or an inability to translate 988 into a toll-free number may wish to consider filing comments with the FCC that set forth the barriers they face and request appropriate reasonable accommodations. 

If you have any questions about the FCC’s NPRM or would like to discuss the possibility of filing comments, please contact Robert H. Jackson at rhj@commlawgroup.com or 703-714-1316.

Jackson is Of Counsel at Marashlian & Donahue, PLLC and brings with him a wealth of knowledge and experience across a broad spectrum of communications and technology issues.  He is an attorney, government relations professional, and former telecom company executive with broad experience addressing the legal and regulatory aspects of financial, technical and marketing issues associated with the telecommunications, Internet and video distribution industries.

Jackson handled telephone numbering matters for US West (now CenturyLink) before the FCC and advised more than 150 other service providers on FCC numbering issues, as well as serving on an advisory group to the North American Numbering Council.

 

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