Facebook Goes Down, People Call 911

Posted on January 28, 2015

Earlier this week, while a brutal nor’easter was ravaging the East Coast, a handful of panicked citizens in San Francisco called 911.

What was their emergency, you ask? Oh nothing much — Facebook and Instagram were down, that’s all. The breathless calls (five in total) prompted one dispatcher to send out this message on social media urging people to remember that 911 is for, y’know, emergencies.

“I just want to know if you can put a note [out] asking them to not call 911 when a website doesn’t work? We have nothing to do with Facebook and when Facebook isn’t working, it’s not an emergency. Our lines [are] dedicated to handle life and death calls, and even though Facebook is important to a lot of people, it’s not a matter of life and death when it stops working. One caller even called back to tell me I was being rude because I told her it wasn’t a life threatening emergency.”

We can laugh about it now, but this episode pointed to a larger issue looming on the horizon — namely, that one day soon this country may indeed treat broadband internet service as a public utility, as President Obama recently suggested.

If that day comes, local governments could find themselves as the most convenient outlet for criticism when the service gets spotty. Here in Chicago, the city’s robust 311 service will route callers directly to ComEd for electrical utility complaints, even though the city itself doesn’t dispatch repair crews or re-string power lines. Imagine, if you will, a similar option to get in touch with your municipal broadband provider to complain that your Netflix speeds aren’t as fast as advertised. What do we need to do to prepare for that future?

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