NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Saturday, September 20th, 2014

Redmond communications outage shows how vulnerable our critical infrastructure is

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.

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4 Comments

  1. I don’t think bet­ter shield­ing would have helped. When you have a huge back­hoe tear­ing through asphalt and con­crete not much is going to stop it from tear­ing through encase­ment and such.

    # by Chad :: September 20th, 2014 at 8:10 PM
  2. They’re sup­posed to have redun­dan­cy: Ver­i­zon (from whom Fron­tier bought the phys­i­cal plant) said they had a ring of fiber con­nect­ing the local hubs to the exchange in Red­mond. (Local hub: anony­mous small build­ing, eg, west side of Red­mond-Wood­inville Road oppo­site NE 116th. Exchange: 148th Av NE in Red­mond, just north of Grass Lawn Park.)

    The pur­pose of a ring (in con­trast to a lin­ear scheme or a star con­nec­tion) is to allow two ways for the fiber to con­nect between the hubs and the exchange. A ring can’t be dis­con­nect­ed by cut­ting one place: your con­ver­sa­tion can go the oth­er way to the hub.

    Pos­si­bly, this event dis­con­nect­ed the Fron­tier exchange from oth­er exchanges. Whichev­er, it shows real­ly insuf­fi­cient traf­fic engi­neer­ing. As Andrew said, lack of prop­er infra­struc­ture.

    In con­trast to roads and bridges for which we pay indi­rect­ly, Fron­tier cus­tomers pay direct­ly for the infra­struc­ture. They’ve let us down.

    I think the report of 6000 cus­tomers affect­ed is low. (They did qual­i­fy it: 6000 Red­mond cus­tomers.) I’ve heard the out­age spreads from Ren­ton to Wood­inville, except­ing local­i­ties that are served by oth­er providers.

    # by Ralph Gorin :: September 20th, 2014 at 9:24 PM
  3. I was affect­ed by this. How­ev­er, only FIOS TV was affect­ed, FIOS inter­net still worked. So some­thing was cor­rect with their net­work plan­ning.

    Sec­ond, this was city con­struc­tion which was planned months, per­haps years in advance. They should have known all of the dig points by heart. The City and the con­trac­tor should share MOST of the blame for this, not Fron­tier. Fron­tier just lays cables where they are per­mit­ted to.

    # by Mike Lipscomb :: September 23rd, 2014 at 6:32 AM
  4. @Ralph Gorin

    Fron­tier pur­chased the trunk­ing lines from Ver­i­zon’s ground ser­vices, and noth­ing is dif­fer­ent. The lines are the same. If this were still brand­ed as Ver­i­zon, the same result would have hap­pened.

    # by John Doe :: September 30th, 2014 at 10:18 AM

One Ping

  1. […] the past few days, many homes and busi­ness­es in the greater Red­mond area have been with­out phone, Inter­net, and tele­vi­sion ser­vice after a con­struc­tion crew work­ing on a stormwa­ter treat­ment project sliced through fiber and cop­per […]