Vandal Activity Reveal Weakness in U.S. Internet Services

Tens of thousands of residents in northern Arizona went without internet service for a couple of hours when vandals cut through an underground bundle of fiber-optic cables owned by CenturyLink last month. The outage lasted more than 15 hours.

This vandal activity did more than time-warp thousands of people back to an era before computers, but it also disrupted services of stores, emergency dispatch systems and online cash machines. More importantly, it exposed a big problem in America’s Internet infrastructure.

A similar incident in Washington last year caused 10 days of Internet and telephone services outage in the San Juan Islands. In this case, an underwater fiber-optic cable became wrapped around a big rock and broke. CenturyLink was also the service provider in this area.

No Back-Up System

CenturyLinkVery few places in the United States have back-up systems. It’s mostly just the greater metropolis, and the smaller cities and bigger rural areas are left without any. Service providers generally do not build alternative routes, or redundancies, unless they believe it is worthwhile financially.

The more rural the location, the more likely there is only one road in and out of the location, a former infrastructure security manager in the U.S. Homeland Security Department was quoted as saying. Despite warnings about this weak spot, most Internet companies still do not have backup systems.

The Problem with Fiber-Optic Lines

As early as 1995, the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology warned that optical fiber technology could cause the diminishing of geographic transmission routes resulting in an increase in network vulnerability.

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Companies continue to deploy more than 10 million miles of fiber annually in the U.S., which only increases the risk of damage from backhoes, trench-diggers and shovels. Outages on high-capacity fiber-optic lines in the U.S. have shot up in recent years, from 221 in 2010 to 487 last year.

Expanded Access

The U.S. Agriculture and Commerce departments provided about $10 billion in grants and loans to encourage Internet service providers to expand their services and broadband access. The departments said recipients were encouraged but not required to build redundancies into their projects.

CenturyLink, the broadband provider in the Arizona and Washington outages, declined to make a statement regarding the incidents. A representative said in an email, however, that the company is constantly investing in its local network and strives to deliver new services and build redundancy where possible.

About half of the rural U.S. lacks access to high-speed Internet service. While nobody is requiring anyone to build network backup systems against outages, there are now drawings of plans to distribute about $20 billion over the next five years to support rural broadband.