Communications outage brings apology, and ireFor the second time in just more than two years, a fiber-optic line break last month resulted in the loss of 911 emergency, landline and cell phone and internet service for much of Lake County and the North Shore.
By: Tom Olsen, Lake County News-Chronicle
For the second time in just more than two years, a fiber-optic line break last month resulted in the loss of 911 emergency, landline and cell phone and internet service for much of Lake County and the North Shore.
It once again highlighted the frustration for many in the region that there isn’t a more robust system in place, including redundant lines, that a single break wouldn’t cripple the whole North Shore.
A CenturyLink line carrying Frontier traffic in Duluth broke at the Knife River bridge during the June 19-20 storm and flood just after midnight on June 20, knocking out communications for approximately 13 hours. The incident was similar to a January 2010 break in a steam tunnel in Duluth, which resulted in an outage of about 12 hours.
CenturyLink is the new name Qwest took on when it was purchased by the namesake company.
Lake County Commissioner Paul Bergman says Frontier knew about the problems with the CenturyLink line and should have taken action two years ago.
“Why they didn’t just bring in another line from Duluth so they have redundancy is beyond me,” he said. “Here’s people saying, ‘We’re experts, let us do it, keep municipalities out,’ but we keep having the same problems over and over and it’s not rocket science to fix it and move forward.”
Lake County is beginning construction this summer on its own fiber-optic communications line. It took advantage of a federal program designed to bring up-to-date technology to rural areas in the country.
Scott Behn, Frontier’s area general manager, said the break was unavoidable due to the flooding problems.
“We regret all service outages and the resulting inconvenience to our customers,” Behm wrote in an email to the News-Chronicle. “We certainly understand the importance of our telecommunications services to our customers and as such, we want everyone to know we are committed to providing reliable telecommunications services.”
Frontier officials say a redundant network will be in place by mid-August, meaning that there will be two lines providing service to Lake County. The added line will ensure that a break in one line doesn’t result in another communications outage.
“While no network, large or small, can fully guarantee against all possible risks, Frontier’s enhanced network will provide robust, reliable service,” Behm wrote. “The project, which has taken nearly two years and will cost Frontier $10 million, is near completion and would have prevented this most recent outage.”
Bergman was skeptical that the new fiber line will be up and running so soon.
“I don’t believe that in eight weeks they’ll be online,” he said. “You can run all the fiber in the world, but it has to be lit to be any good.”
Unlit fiber, or dark fiber, is fiber that has been laid in the ground but is not actively in use. With the expansion of the internet, communications companies have laid millions of miles of fiber throughout the world, but many lines remain unused.
Bergman said it is imperative that Frontier finds a solution to the redundancy issue immediately.
“That people can’t call in to get assistance is absolutely wrong and that’s one of the obligations that Frontier has when it has the 911 contract with the county,” he said.
Bergman, who is also the owner of the Vanilla Bean Café in Two Harbors, said communications outages also put a strain on businesses.
“Businesses all around the world try to contact local businesses and think they’re closed,” he said.
Bergman requested that Kirk Lehman, Frontier’s northern Minnesota general manager, or another official meet with the county board by the end of June. Lehman declined, citing a family vacation, but said Frontier plans to hold a public forum in mid-July to present information about Frontier’s new fiber project to the public.
“We are in the process of preparing a presentation of what this new investment in northern Minnesota will mean to our customers in terms of improving reliability and increasing data capacity and speeds,” Lehman wrote in an email to Bergman last week. “We will be scheduling a forum and media event to present what this means to our customers in July and we’d be happy to have you and the other commissioners attend.”
Bergman compared Lehman’s vacation to an infamous incident in which former BP President Tony Hayward went yachting in Europe during the massive Gulf Coast oil spill in 2010.
“It shows it’s not a priority with them. It irks me the wrong way that they won’t even consider coming in and talking,” he said. “I gave them a week and a half to come in and do it and they chose not to. They did the same thing in 2010.”
Further complicating the county’s relationship with Frontier is a telephone pole ownership debate that is threatening to stall the county’s plan to install high-speed fiber throughout the county.
The project is on schedule to finish as early as 2014, but Frontier has claimed ownership of dozens of poles in Two Harbors and Ely that Lake Connections, the broadband company that is installing the lines, plans to use for the project.
Bergman said Frontier’s claim is a tactic to drive out the competition.
“They said they own 40 percent and then they said they own all of the poles, and we asked them to prove it and they have no proof,” he said. “If you can’t show you own the poles, they why bring it up and slow down the new network that would be in competition?”
Lehman disputed that Frontier is trying to thwart competition.
“We have a person in Two Harbors that is dedicated to working on reconciliation of the pole ownership issue,” he wrote to Bergman.
Fiber is stronger and less susceptible to breaks, and Bergman says when the project is complete, Lake County should not experience any more widespread outages.
Frontier currently has the county’s 911 contract and many residents and businesses rely on the company for cell phone, landline and internet coverage.
But when the county’s fiber network is complete, Bergman expects changes.
“As soon as we have the network in there, we’ll cast (Frontier) off,” Bergman said. “I guarantee that.”