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Companies Doubt Suicide Hotline Ready by 2022 Despite Need

July 16, 2020, 10:01 AM

The unity that has marked the move to create a 988 national suicide hotline risks fraying over telephone company worries of not being able to meet the target date for starting the service.

Companies, including AT&T Inc. and CenturyLink Inc., support speedily connecting potential suicide victims with counselors. But they question if they can replace thousands of switches on landline phone networks in time for the scheduled July 2022 service start.

The issue is poised to come to a head Thursday, when the Federal Communications Commission is expected to override the industry concerns and set a two-year timeline for getting the service in place.

The conundrum shows what happens when popular initiatives like a national suicide hotline run up against the technological limitations of the U.S. telephone network. In this case, the limits are landline telephones in certain area codes.

In most of the U.S., landline users must dial an area code and seven-digit number to make local calls. Adding the 988 hotline is easy in these areas.

But within 87 area codes sprinkled across 40 U.S. states and territories, landline customers can still make local calls the old-fashioned way—by dialing seven digits with no area code.

In these areas, the hotline would create confusion because some regular phone numbers begin with 988.

The solution, according to the phone companies, is to replace thousands of switches on landline networks in the 87 area codes so that users would need to dial an area code for local calls.

It will likely take at least five years for phone companies to change the switches, the USTelecom industry group told the FCC in a filing last month. That means they’d miss the FCC’s hotline start date by at least three years.

“We would want to be able to offer this functionality tomorrow,” said Kristine Hackman, the group’s vice president of policy and advocacy. “There are operational and technical hurdles that will make it difficult.”

But the FCC, led by Republican Ajit Pai, isn’t backing down. “Chairman Pai believes 988 can and should be implemented within two years,” the agency said in an emailed statement.

Preventing Suicide

Government officials, nonprofit advocacy groups, and telephone companies are united in the goal of preventing suicides.

In 2018, 48,344 Americans took their own lives, a 2.5% increase over the previous year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 34.

The suicide rate in the U.S. climbed to 14.2 per 100,000 people in 2018 from 10.5 in 1998, a 35% increase over the two decades, according to the CDC.

The FCC hopes that one way to combat the trend is to switch the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number, 1-800-273-TALK, to a simple and straightforward 988. Like 911 for public safety emergencies, 988 is fast to dial and easy to remember.

The result of the new number may be an increase in the number of Americans who receive help. There were more than 2.2 million calls to the 1-800 hotline in 2018, according to the FCC.

Optimistic Deadline

While supporting the goal, phone companies say the FCC’s planned start of the service in July 2022 belies their past experiences implementing 10-digit dialing.

The process requires teams of technicians to upgrade switches and monitor networks to ensure they’re functioning properly, AT&T said in a filing earlier this month. Companies also must educate consumers about the switch.

The FCC’s draft order “would adopt an arbitrary two-year deadline based on mistaken assumptions, unsupported conclusions, and expectations untethered to historic experience,” AT&T said.

The industry rarely implements 10-digit dialing in multiple area codes simultaneously, USTelecom’s Hackman said. The most upgrades it’s ever completed in a single year is 11 in 2001, she said.

But the FCC argues the phone industry will be able to meet the July 2022 date based on “economies of scale and lessons learned regarding the logistical and technical processes,” according to the agency’s draft order.

Delaying the start date would slow easier access to resources in parts of the country that need it most, the FCC’s emailed statement said. That includes rural counties where suicide rates are nearly twice those of urban counties, the FCC said.

The networks that need switches replaced include area codes that cover the entirety of New Hampshire, New Mexico, South Dakota, and North Dakota. All four of those states have suicide rates above the U.S. average, according to the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics.

The area codes also include metropolitan areas such as Phoenix, New Orleans, and Milwaukee.

Avoiding Failure

USTelecom has proposed several steps for the FCC to “safeguard” against the possibility that the hotline won’t be ready by July 2022.

The group recommends that the FCC require the North American Numbering Plan Administrator, which oversees the telephone numbering system, to develop a transition plan 30 days after the FCC adopts its order.

The administrator has to release a plan to implement 10-digit dialing in the 87 area codes before companies can complete work on the new switches, which is another risk of delay, USTelecom said in a filing earlier this month.

The FCC should consider giving waivers to companies that can’t meet the deadline and monitor their progress, the industry group said.

It’s unclear if the FCC will incorporate the recommendations in its final order.

Advocacy groups, including the Trevor Project and American Association of Suicidology, say the FCC shouldn’t wait. Economic stress and social isolation from the coronavirus pandemic may exacerbate suicide risks.

“Delaying the implementation of 988 is not an adequate response to public demand for more robust crisis service,” the groups told the FCC in a letter earlier this year.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jon Reid in Washington at jreid@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Hughes at jhughes@bloombergindustry.com; Keith Perine at kperine@bloomberglaw.com