Overhaul of U.S. Telecoms Database Sparks Fear of Catastrophic Failure

Foreign firm handling overhaul cited for national security breaches

Chairman Ajit Pai of the Federal Communications Commission
Chairman Ajit Pai of the Federal Communications Commission / Getty Images
March 26, 2018

An impending overhaul of the national U.S. telecommunications database is prompting fears the transition could spark a catastrophic failure, crippling emergency communications networks across the United States, according to industry insiders who told the Washington Free Beacon the foreign firm handling the upcoming transition may not be prepared to initiate the switch.

On April 8, a foreign firm will initiate the first phase in a Federal Communications Commission-mandated overhaul of the national telecoms database that stores and facilitates millions of American phone numbers.

The national database, known as the Number Portability Administration Center (NPAC), handles 6 billion calls and texts per day, and if the system fails, no calls at all will be able to be placed. It is being taken over by a foreign-owned firm with a past of breaching U.S. national security clauses banning it from employing foreign workers, such as those tied to China.

Ahead of the deadline, industry insiders have been raising concerns that iconnectiv, the firm responsible for handling the nation-wide transition, is not prepared to implement the switch, a situation that could cripple emergency services and interrupt cell service for scores of Americans.

The first phase of the transition will focus on nine American states in the southeast, as well as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Industry insiders told the Free Beacon that there is currently no mechanism in place to return to the existing telecoms database should something catastrophic occur during the impending transition.

"First responders won't be able to reach people in need, the FBI and other law enforcement will lose a critical tool in conducting wiretaps, and consumers could face long stretches without wireless service," said one source with direct knowledge of the situation.

iConnectiv, formally known as the Swedish-owned firm Telcordia, has been working on an expedited timeline to implement to transition after it was forced to restart its work in the wake of a national security scandal.

Telcordia was caught in 2016 using a Chinese engineer to work on the sensitive database, a violation of national security clauses included in the firm's contract with the U.S. government.

The use of foreign workers triggered an FBI investigation, forcing the company to restart its work, a situation that delayed the project for months and cost U.S. taxpayers some $375 million.

Now working on a rushed deadline ahead of the April 8 switch, industry insiders have been expressing concerns that the network is not ready for primetime, which could result in a catastrophic failure impacting scores of Americans.

"The bottom line is that it's difficult to get a good read on whether everything is on target for April 8," officials with Mobile Ecosystem, an industry consulting firm, wrote in a recent update on the situation. "Executives who have been involved with IT projects of this magnitude are concerned about the compressed time schedule for this project."

"It was delayed for a time because some code that had been written by a Chinese citizen who did not have the proper security clearance had to be rewritten, which resulted in the testing schedule being substantially compressed," the firm noted. "In an ideal world, given the volume of data involved, the production traffic should be mirrored for a time. But it does not appear that there's a plan for that."

Concerns about the overhaul have also reached Congress, where Sen. Bill Nelson (D., Fla.), ranking member of the Senate's Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation, recently petitioned the FCC to explain if it is prepared for iconnectiv to take over the database.

Nelson implored FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai to provide assurances the database overhaul will not takedown Florida's emergency services, as industry insiders have been warning for months.

The senator requests the FCC explain what it "is doing to make sure that the transition occurs seamlessly and without disruption to public safety, law enforcement, industry of the general public in Florida," according to a copy of the letter sent last week and obtained by the Free Beacon. "In particular, I want your assurance that no Floridian will be harmed as a part of this process."

Nelson is demanding further assurances that the FCC has a plan to revert back to the current system should something go wrong with the overhaul.

Currently, there is no system in place to quickly reinstate the current database should iconnectiv's overhaul go wrong, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the situation.

"The FCC, for a highly suspect reason, is hell-bent on making this happen on a date certain to the point where they're willing to ignore this necessity of a contingency rollback," said one source familiar with the new database.

If the new system "does not work the way it was intended, they don't have a contingency plan, which is a very odd way to do a technology transition," the source said.

Published under: FCC