Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Ready the Lash

During yesterday's widespread T-Mobile outage, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai took to Twitter to let everyone know just how seriously he was taking things.
The T-Mobile network outage is unacceptable. The @FCC is launching an investigation. We're demanding answers--and so are American consumers.
Yes, yes, Chairman Pai. Bravo. You can go back to whatever you were doing. Although, you know, if you'd really like to help us out, calling on technology companies to avoid unhelpful terms like "issue" and "glitch" would go a long way. The banalities hide the true nature of the problems that result in these sorts of large-scale impacts. When T-Mobile says that "a voice and data issue that has been affecting customers around the country" that doesn't tell anyone anything that their lack of cell service hasn't already communicated. Likewise, "This is an IP traffic related issue that has created significant capacity issues in the network core throughout the day." The term "issue" is undefined, and that's why companies fall back on it so much. It allows them to acknowledge the obvious, that there is a problem, without having to pull back the curtain on what the problem might actually be (and thus risk appearing "incompetent").

Of course, it's possible that T-Mobile simply didn't have the details at hand when their messages went out. But it's almost certain that they had more information than what they were giving. If, for instance, the "capacity issue" was a result of some of their internet infrastructure being offline or bypassed, and the remainder being overloaded because of that, they likely knew that. And they could have said so.

But the general opacity with which companies approach these things gives people like Chairman Pai the opportunity to beat his chest and claim to be standing up for the public. But if the FCC insisted on better transparency to begin with, and were less likely to approve the formation of large enterprises through mergers and acquisitions, they wouldn't need to grandstand in the first place.

Part of the problem as always, lies with the public at large. To the degree that there is an expectation that things will "just work" and that people who aren't visibly scrambling aren't doing anything useful, there are incentives to be reactive, rather than proactive. Many people don't understand the level of effort needed to maintain the infrastructure around them, and when things don't break, there is often an assumption that they never can. It's possible that T-Mobile had done everything in accordance with best practices, and things blew up on them anyway. Technology is no less fallible than people are.

I don't know that greater transparency on the part of large companies will help drive that message home. I do understand that the companies themselves don't see transparency as being in their interests; this is, after all, why they don't offer much of it. But it's somewhat disingenuous, all around, for the FCC to aid and abet them in being opaque, and then turn on them when that opacity becomes a catalyst for public anger. As long as the public is okay with the FCC (or anyone else) having it both ways, though, this pattern will continue.

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