FCC's Pai Proposes 988 for Suicide Hotline

In some good news for the cable industry, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has settled on designating 988 as the national suicide prevention and mental health hotline number, requiring all phone companies to transmit all calls to 988 to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

He has scheduled a vote on the proposal at the Dec. 12 meeting.

The National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act of 2018 had asked the FCC to study the feasibility of such a 3-digit hotline number and the FCC had reported back to Congress in August that it thought 988 was the number to go with.

The FCC had been looking into potentially using N11 system for a new mental health hotline.

But NCTA: The Internet & Television Association, argued that the FCC shouldn’t repurpose 611 — or any of the other numbers now in use in the N11 system--for that purpose.

NCTA pointed out that while the FCC has not officially designated it as such, many of its members use 611 for customer repair service calls. Fun fact: 411, which has become associated with directory assistance, was not designated by the FCC for that purpose either, according to the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions, which was also advising against co-opting 611.

The three largest NCTA members generated a collective call volume to 611 of 556,879 in just two months (last October and November), the trade group said.

In recommending 988 and deciding not to commandeer any of the N11 numbers, the FCC said it was not worried about carriers' convenience but the volume of calls already going to the number, some 300 million per year, which would mean that a suicide hotline could be flooded with misdirected calls, potentially costing lives if they crowded out callers in crisis.

“When someone is in crisis, immediate access to help can mean the difference," said US Telecom president Jonathan Spalter. "The creation of a three-digit national suicide prevention and mental health crisis hotline is an idea whose time has come. USTelecom is ready and eager to work closely with government, healthcare and community organizations everywhere to advance effective and durable solutions to this national challenge. We thank the FCC for its proposal and look forward to working with Chairman Pai and all the commissioners as we review the details.”

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.