For some 12 hours last week, entire communities found themselves without access to telecommunications due to a fiber cut to a Qwest cable that services the entire region. This is not the first time such a cut has marooned everything from Homeland Security to long distance phone calls to businesses that can no longer accept credit card transactions -- but Qwest has refused to invest in a redundant cable, showing their disregard for those communities.
I wonder how many businesses were hurt by their sudden and unplanned isolation from clients, partners, and others. How many missed contracts or deadlines?
It shows the insanity of putting barriers before communities that are trying to build the very networks companies like Qwest promise but never deliver (barriers like the 65% referendum to offer telephone services for publicly owned networks). Both Lake and Cook Counties are waiting to hear the status of their applications for federal broadband stimulus funds, with which they will build broadband networks. Companies like Qwest and Mediacom have opposed new networks in an effort to protect their turf, even while refusing to invest in those areas because they do not generate sufficient profits.
These County initiatives have not been denied stimulus funding but have also not moved into the "due diligence" phase, placing them in limbo and forcing them to prepare additional applications for the second round of funding before they even know why their application was denied (if it is denied) in the first round. Somewhere, Joseph Heller is smiling.*
MPR provided good coverage of this fiber cut even though they did not air an explanation as to why Qwest finds it reasonable to keep these communities connected with a single cable.
Bank ATM's failed. No one could use their credit cards. But as bad as that was for business, the 12-hour-long outage knocked out what the federal government calls a "vital part of our nation's emergency response system."
The outage killed 911 emergency service in Cook County, Chief Deputy Leif Lunde said.
With no 911 service, county officials turned to volunteer firefighters to field emergency calls from normally un-staffed fire halls. Fire truck radios relayed the information back to Grand Marais. Ham radio operators provided a backup way for the Grand Marais hospital to consult with Duluth medical facilities.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers received help from their counterparts in Canada, according to Public Affairs Liaison Chris Misson.
Read, or listen to, the entire story - it is well worth it and a good reminder that these networks are essential infrastructure.
Update: Resident Jim Boyd has a great piece as well, describing the impact of this Internet dislocation:
County and state police officers lost the ability to check driver's licenses and vehicle plate numbers and to make warrant checks on people pulled over or behaving suspiciously.
Banks lost access to all of their online records and their ability to connect with other financial institutions. Business ground almost to a halt, save for the few simple transactions that required only a temporary paper record, such as cashing small checks or accepting deposits.
I won't quote more because you should read his entire analysis. The conclusion is impossible to dismiss: these networks are essential infrastructure and communities must have the option of building their own network to avoid these problems.
Many communities around the country have built their own networks to ensure redundancy to first responders and other vital entities. In New York and DC, the local government runs its own network because their public safety departments cannot be just another customer to the phone company. In North Carolina, the non-profit Mountain Area Information Network provided broadband access to ham radio operators to recover in the event of a natural disaster - the incumbent (a national company) is far less responsive to local needs.
Disruptive cuts to these networks are not infrequent around the country -- but they don't always make the news, unfortunately. 2 months ago, I got an email from an exasperated person in Nebraska who noted thousands had lost Internet for 12 hours at that point and they didn't know when it would end. Once again, it was caused by a cut to Qwest fiber. Googling it, I cannot find news of it anywhere except for some social media sites. Nebraska is one of the worst states when it comes to preempting communities from building their own networks -- they need to reconsider that decision to bring some competition to town.
*Author of Catch-22 for you non-literary types.
Photo by Jackanapes, used under creative commons license.