AT&T responds to outage criticism

Daniel Mintz
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT – Representatives of AT&T explained the circumstances of recent outages to Humboldt County’s Board of Supervisors and described the company’s efforts to prevent future service losses.

The company updated its progress on preventing Internet and phone service outages at the Dec. 19 supervisors meeting.

AT&T has faced criticism for being prone to regional service outages. The most recent one was seen last October, when wildfires burned fiber optic cables in multiple areas, causing a 48-hour service blackout.

Rhunette Alums, AT&T’s area director of external affairs, said the company is working on expanding the “diversity” of broadband cables, including extension of north-south lines from Eureka to Trinidad.

The other work will “provide some redundancy and will reduce the opportunity for a cut that will take you totally off the air,” said Alums. She added that the work will bring about “significant changes that will improve Internet experiences, accessibility and survivability.”

She said that people have asked her why outages “along Highway 36” affect AT&T while services from other providers are unaffected.

“We need to have more equipment placed along Highway 36 that will allow the opportunity for that equipment to talk to each other, talk to our systems, so we can continue to isolate issues,” said Alums.

The work she’d previously described will “complete that loop so there is no opportunity for an outage at all,” she continued.

There have been reports of AT&T offering better service resiliency to customers who are willing to pay for it. Asked about that by Supervisor Mike Wilson, Alums said that during the wildfires, service restoration that delivered the most widespread effects was prioritized.

“It wasn’t predicated on who paid for it and who didn’t, it was where can we get the maximum amount of restored coverage for people as fast as we could,” she continued.

There were also communication and public awareness issues during the outages.  Supervisors joined Sheriff Billy Honsal in calling for outage mapping and specific identification of areas that lose service.

During a discussion last October, Honsal and some supervisors faulted AT&T, saying that a fiber optic redundancy or back-up connection is available but AT&T hasn’t connected to it.  Supervisors were apparently satisfied with AT&T’s update on its resiliency expansion work, however.

Supervisor Rex Bohn joked that much of the dissatisfaction with losing service had to do with “Facebook withdrawal.”

But during a public comment session, Sean McLaughlin, the executive director of Access Humboldt, said the AT&T situation is related to the company’s legislative influence.

“I had Facebook all day, Rex,” he said, referring to the outage period. “Community anchor institutions who are really critical – and not just for Facebook – were disproportionately impacted by this and that’s really because of the legacy of regulation and market and because AT&T is writing the laws that will get adopted by the legislature.”

Gregg Foster, executive director of the Redwood Region Economic Development Commission, credited AT&T’s fiber optic diversity work but advanced a commonly-asked question: “What is the barrier to getting the Route 36 redundant line fully implemented?”

Alums said questions raised during public comment would be researched and answered later.

Wilson noted that the county has service contracts with AT&T. He said they’ll probably be reviewed, particularly regarding emergency response communication.

“We’ll have to take a look at that and make sure that the commitments being made by those contracts are being upheld,” he continued.


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