This morning, at around at 9:30 AM Pacific Daylight Time, a construction crew working on a stormwater treatment project in NPI’s hometown of Redmond, Washington accidentally caused a major telecommunications outage for nearly six thousand customers of Frontier Communications (including yours truly) when they dug in the wrong place and severed vital fiber and copper wires.
The outage, which is still ongoing, has resulted in a total, catastrophic failure of Frontier’s Internet, television, and phone services in the Redmond area. Affected households and businesses are not able to connect to the Net, watch any FiOS channels, or place calls (even emergency calls) through Frontier’s infrastructure.
Frontier has technicians onsite and is working as fast as it can to restore service. A Frontier spokeswoman said the construction crew that was at fault caused “considerable damage”. There is no estimate of when service might be back up yet, but Frontier says its own people are working “nonstop”. Earlier this afternoon they were pulling materials needed for the repairs, according to Frontier’s Twitter feed.
The City of Redmond has also acknowledged the outage on its website and on Twitter. City personnel are working with Frontier to figure out what went wrong and how to get service back up for the thousands of people affected.
The outage is more than an inconvenience, particularly for those without cellular phone service, since it prevents them from calling 911 to summon first responders in the event of an emergency. The outage has stretched on for eight hours already, and it might not be resolved for many more hours.
No doubt the city and Frontier will investigate, and try to figure out how this happened. If the construction company is at fault (and it sounds like they were) there should be appropriate consequences.
But regardless of what the investigation uncovers, this and other incidents demonstrate that our critical infrastructure is more vulnerable than we might think.
In this case, one misguided construction crew was able to knock out Internet, phone, and television services for a sizeable fraction of the population of Washington’s nineteenth largest city merely by digging in the wrong place.
It’s sobering to think about what might happen to our critical infrastructure in the event of a natural disaster like an earthquake, or a human-caused calamity, like a terrorist attack. We are not as prepared for such events as we ought to be.
To minimize telecommunication service disruptions, we should look at improving redundancy along with implementing better shielding to protect our core fiber optic cables from being cut, either accidentally or purposefully.
Washington does participate in the Call Before You Dig initiative, as do Montana and Oregon, but that effort could use more awareness.
A large amount of traffic flows over the publicly and privately owned trunk lines in this region and across the United States. Their integrity matters.
At present, I am staying connected to the Internet through NPI’s wireless provider, so it’s business as usual. But if we didn’t have that redundancy, it wouldn’t be.
Redundancy is a very good thing, and can guard against all sorts of problems… from data loss and hard disk failure to connectivity disruptions. We need more of it.