Hank Sims / @ 10:23 a.m. / Infrastructure, Op-Ed

Two Years Ago, AT&T Promised to End Mass Telecommunication Outages. How’s That Working Out?


For the second day running now, large parts of Humboldt County — including vital government agencies — are without telecommunication services, or are so crippled that they have to MacGyver some sort of temporary solution. You can’t call Eureka City Hall or the police station or many banks and schools and medical services on the telephone. Many folks’ cell phones are offline. Many people and businesses have no internet service.

These people are all customers of AT&T, or customers of businesses who buy telecommunications services from AT&T on the wholesale market. A couple of years ago, AT&T promised local lawmakers that soon, thanks to amazing new network improvements, this would never happen again. And yet it keeps happening.

Since people are writing us this morning to ask about when their service will be restored, and since we have no earthly idea about what to tell them, this is probably as good a time as any to revisit the question of why it keeps happening.

To repeat, though: We have no idea when AT&T service will be restored. A reporter’s experience of trying to get information out of this critical utility is remarkably like an AT&T customer’s experience trying to get information about her AT&T bill, or her AT&T services. Your call is shuffled somewhere around the globe, and you are made to wait a long time to talk to someone who, likely as not, doesn’t know anything and cannot help you.

In the reporter’s case, when you call anyone at AT&T looking for information you are directed to call, instead, a third-party public relations firm that the utility has on retainer to answer such calls. The people you talk to are pleasant enough, but they are not inside the company. They take down your question and promise to research it. When they have completed that research — however long that may take — they email you a statement. If that statement is inadequate or incomplete or incorrect, you start that whole process over again. Or attempt to.

Other public utilities on which society depends handle these matters differently. PG&E, for example, employs its own contact people for the media, and those people are swift and responsive. The local PG&E rep came by the Outpost offices just the other day to say hello. She practically begged us to call her more often.

That’s not how it works in AT&T-land. Here is a statement that was emailed out by their public relations firm last night:

Some wireless customers in parts of Northern California may be experiencing issues with their service due to damage caused by wildfires. We are working to restore service as quickly as conditions allow. Our Network Disaster Recovery and local network teams are deploying a number of resources, including temporary cell sites to the area.

Part of this is incorrect, part of it is incomplete and part of it is inadequate. All of it is intended to serve the utility, rather than the utility’s customers. It is not the case that some wireless customers are without service — all AT&T’s regular-level customers, whether residential or commercial or public-sector, are without service, whether they get that service through wires or not. And some AT&T wireless customers are doing just fine, in fact, while some wireless customers with other carriers are also down — it all seems to depend on which tower you connect to.

It’s not some customers in parts of Northern California who are down: The company knows specifically who is down and who is not down, and chooses to keep things vague for its own reasons. The damage was caused by “wildfires,” sure — but which of the many wildfires? Or was the damage caused by more than one of the wildfires?

The main thing, of course, is the big, big problem that the company elides when it employs that phrase: “damage caused by wildfires.” What was damaged? We here in Humboldt County know exactly what was damaged because we are so very, very accustomed to this happening again and again and again. We wake up to our benighted neighbors who are still with AT&T saying that their internet is down. Likewise our friends in Ferndale, who are with Frontier Communications — an AT&T wholesale customer. Then we look at downdetector.com and the College of the Redwoods website (an Outpost trick) and we conclude — yes, AT&T’s fiber-optic line has been severed. Again.

Here’s how local telecommunications services work. AT&T owns and operates the county’s oldest fiber-optic line, which runs between Humboldt County and the Bay Area. That fiber-optic line is the trunk cable that carries all the data generated by AT&T and its wholesale customers. In 2011, after much political strife and agitation and expenditure of public funds, another fiber-optic line was built to connect Humboldt to the Central Valley. This “redundant” line was important because of the frequent outages on the AT&T north-south line, which — then and now — is forever being severed by vandals or fires or rock slides or errant backhoes. If the one line goes down, the thought went, then companies can easily switch their traffic over to the other line.

But a funny thing happened: AT&T never leased space for its regular customers on the east-west line. Its main competitor, Suddenlink, did. And so when the north-south line goes dark, as it does several times a year on average, Suddenlink and other local telcoms stay up while AT&T and those telcoms who rely solely on AT&T go down.

This was supposed to be fixed by now. In late 2015, after a series of similar outages, state and local lawmakers started really getting pissed at AT&T, and started to demand solutions. And the company promised them solutions. It wrote a letter to the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors promising “network upgrades” that would be “completed by the end of 2016” that would protect the county in cases of “single points of failure.”  It talked about “upgrading wire service on the main route of the network” and “routing traffic over diverse paths.”

AT&T was pretty freaked out at the time. We know this because the Outpost actually managed — wonder of wonders — to get a vice-president of the company on the phone, to nail down the answer to a specific question that the letter to the Board of Supervisors danced around: Would, in fact, the company rent space on the east-west fiber line to provide redundancy for its customers during such emergencies? After some hemming and hawing, the vice-president said — on the record! — that yes, it would.

Well, it did not. The answer apparently mollified some people, though — including county government — because some people, including county government itself, still contract with AT&T. But if you, dear reader, are contacted by a telemarketer who attempts to sell you on the wonders of bundled U-Verse, you would be wise to price in the cost of being without any phone or internet or television service for frequent, extended, unknown periods of time. 

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UPDATE: This morning, the Outpost called the above-mentioned PR firm hoping to get more specifics about the current outage. What “equipment” was “damaged”? Where? What is the estimated time of restoral? How many customers are down? Why did you say “wireless” customers were down, when actually wired customers are who are down?

As per usual, as noted above, our call was not returned. Instead we got an email, which reads, in total:

Hank, got a voicemail this morning, I think from you? Current information is what we shared last night. Will update you as soon as we have more. Regards, Steven.

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