AT&T to answer for internet outages

Paul Mann
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT – Lawmakers are poised to grill AT&T officials at a summit conference in Ukiah in March or early April about putting a stop to dangerous and expensive four-county fiber outages.

Three dates are in play – March 12 is the earliest – for the crisis parley led by state Senator Mike McGuire and Assemblymember Jim Wood. They will press AT&T to go well beyond upgrades and

Jim Wood

Jim Wood

install complete telecommunications redundancy for the North Coast, based on a quick-step action plan.

“Resiliency” is not enough, they assert.

Following a preliminary meeting last week in Sacramento with the company’s representatives, McGuire said in a telephone interview Friday that he is satisfied with the groundwork being laid for the high-stakes encounter.

But the senator hastened to add that “the devil is the details.” He and Wood want to hear the steps AT&T will take, with substance and exactness.

“It is important that all of us are in the same room and hearing the same story on improving the North Coast data network,” McGuire said.

One of the foremost complaints of legislators and county supervisors is that the utility has been aloof and unresponsive in communicating with the hundreds of thousands of residents of Humboldt, Lake, Mendocino and Sonoma counties when breakdowns occur. Hence the necessity of a high-level joint meeting.

Sen. Mike McGuire

Sen. Mike McGuire

“We believe nothing short of complete telecommunications redundancy for all customers along the North Coast [will provide]  residents the safety and security they deserve,” McGuire and Wood admonished AT&T in a long letter dated Jan. 11 to the company’s legislative affairs vice president, William H. Devine.

The repeated fiber outages have disrupted congressionally-mandated Coast Guard patrols, hobbled law enforcement, sandbagged emergency teams and medical services and inflicted millions of dollars of losses on four-county businesses and financial institutions, the legislators say. ATM operations, credit and debit card transactions, bank and business accounts and retail sales were blocked.

In one instance, some students at College of the Redwoods could not complete online finals or get access to school documents.

As a predicate to the Ukiah meeting, McGuire is pushing a senate bill, SB 1250, which would require telecommunication carriers to report rural 911 outages promptly to public safety agencies like the California Public Utilities Commission and county and state Offices of Emergency Services (OES). Notices would have to be transmitted within 30 minutes of any outage lasting 30 minutes or more or with the potential to affect 75,000 “user minutes.”

A second, more detailed report would have to be submitted within two hours.     

A full summary of the outage would have to be filed with the utilities commission within three weeks, including the measures to be taken to avoid more outages.

McGuire and Wood charge that AT&T provided “little communication” during 911 shutdowns last September and December, disruptions that posed major safety and security threats.

The Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office lost jail phone service, putting corrections personnel at risk. The county’s Superior Court computer system went down, foiling the entry of restraining order information and the issuing of warrants and firearm restrictions.     

The failures fouled up a host of other court operations, to the extent that staff were forced to write internal documents and calendars by hand.

First responders in Mendocino County had to deploy ambulances at highway intersections and rely on an antiquated ham radio network for emergency calls.

AT&T’s neglect of communication and responsiveness was so abysmal that McGuire himself had to alert the state Office of Emergency Services of the major outages in September and December.

He and Wood have warned the company that sheer luck is all that has prevented the repeated shutdowns from coinciding with a rural crisis.    

“It is only a matter of time,” they told AT&T in January, “before the lack of telecommunication redundancy results in the unfortunate loss of life or property.”

The lawmakers buttress their case with the recent pronouncement by the Federal Communications Commission that broadband Internet is no longer a convenience or an amenity. Rather, it has become infrastructure in its own right, a core utility as indispensable as electricity, water, sewers and public safety.


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One Comment;

  1. Sean Kutzko said:

    It’s unfortunate that this reporter chose to refer to the Amateur Radio service that provided critical communications as “antiquated.” Amateur Radio is the standalone method that can offer reliable communication without the Internet or any existing telecom infrastructure. With over 735,000 Amateur Radio licenses in the United States, after years of consecutive growth since 2007, Amateur Radio remains one of the best ways to learn about electronics, physics, geography and a host of other disciplines. Several executive of IEEE-affiliated companies and organizations advocate the use of Amateur Radio as a professional development tool; the engineers they are getting out of college are book-smart, but haven’t the most basic understanding of RF and how it practically works.

    And ham radio can keep you communicating via voice or a digital messaging system through your tablet around town or around the world when your cell phone network and Internet connectivity goes down.

    Sounds pretty sophisticated to me.

    Learn more:

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