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Internet outages show gaps in broadband infrastructure

Felicia Fonseca
Associated Press

Flagstaff, Ariz. — When vandals sliced a fiber-optic cable in the Arizona desert last month, they did more than time-warp thousands of people back to an era before computers, credit cards or even phones. They exposed a glaring vulnerability in the nation’s Internet infrastructure: no backup systems in many places.

Because Internet service is largely unregulated by the federal government and the states, decisions about network reliability are left to the service providers. Industry analysts say these companies generally do not build alternative routes, or redundancies, unless they believe it is worthwhile financially.

The result: While most major metropolitan areas in the U.S. have backup systems, some smaller cities and many rural areas do not.

“The more rural the location, the more likely that there’s only one road in and out of that location,” said Sean Donelan, a former infrastructure security manager in the U.S. Homeland Security Department who now works for a cybersecurity firm.

“If someone manages to cut that fiber, you’ll generally see a one- or two- or three-day outage.”

Despite its own warnings about such vulnerabilities two decades ago, the federal government has taken no steps to require Internet companies to have backup systems, even as it has provided billions of dollars in subsidies to expand broadband Internet into unserved areas.

“Our first responsibility is to make sure that people actually have service,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, co-chairman of President Barack Obama’s newly created Broadband Opportunity Council.

When an underwater fiber-optic cable became wrapped around a big rock and broke in 2013, some residents of Washington state’s San Juan Islands were without Internet and telephone service for 10 days.

Among them was aerospace consultant Mike Loucks, who said he was shocked to find out his home phone, cellphone and Internet service did not work independently of each other. All went down because they relied on the same cable.

He ended up taking a ferry to the mainland to dial in to conference calls from his car outside a McDonald’s.

“When I figured out what all had been routed to this cable, it’s a single-point failure thing,” he said. “That’s pretty dumb. Why don’t you guys have a backup cable?”

He was so frustrated that he switched Internet providers.

CenturyLink, the broadband provider in the Arizona and Washington outages, declined to make officials available for an interview about its Internet infrastructure.

But spokeswoman Linda Johnson said in an email that the company acts quickly to restore service and “is constantly investing in its local network and strives to deliver new services and build redundancy where possible.”

After the San Juan Islands outage, CenturyLink spent $500,000 to install a microwave system that now backs up the underwater cable.

The FCC recently increased its oversight of Internet providers by classifying them as “telecommunications services” that must operate in the public interest. But that doesn’t carry any new mandate for Internet network redundancies, because such backups aren’t required of phone companies, FCC spokesman Mark Wigfield said.