More info on the Outage in NE Minnesota

Last week I posted a note from Chris Swanson on the broadband outages in Northeast Minnesota. I’ve had a few people (thank you!) send me follow up articles, which I wanted to share here:

Minnesota Public Radio covered the story. The reporter spoke to several people in the area who lost connectivity – and business due to the outage in broadband and cell coverage. (That includes access to process credit cards and 911 service!)

MPR also posted commentary from Grand Marais resident Jim Boyd, who is a retired reporter and was able to capture the frustration and the danger of the incident. As he states simply, “Along most of the North Shore, we are dependent on a single fiber cable. This incident illustrated too well what will happen if it breaks.”

Chris Mitchell from Institute for Local Self Reliance posted an article that notes, “The conclusion is impossible to dismiss: these networks are essential infrastructure and communities must have the option of building their own network to avoid these problems.” He points to the need and offers examples where counties have been able to build redundant networks.

One of the big issues is that it’s not really clear yet how the outage occurred. Initially it was reported that there was an incident involving the Duluth Steam Cooperative Association. They say there were no such incidents – but indicate that they had warned Qwest about laying fiber cable over steam pipes without proper insulation. According to the Lake County News Chronicle,

Qwest spokesperson Joanna Hjelmeland, who originally reported the steam pipe rupture, was made aware of Duluth Steam’s contention but offered no more details. “We are working on an investigation to confirm the exact cause of the external damage to our facilities,” Hjelmeland wrote in an email response. “Until our investigation is complete, I’m not able to discuss more details.”

John Stanoch at Qwest was kind enough to send me the letter that he sent to various interested parties. Apparently When crews responded to the scene, they observed steam escaping from two manholes. The air temperature when they open the manhole was significantly warmer than normal and materials inside the manhole were deformed from what appeared to be heat damage. That was the basis for the original assessment that heat damage had caused the failure.

Since Qwest heard from the city they have been working to determine the cause. As John said in his letter, this wasn’t a typical cable cut. Apparently they have local and national experts working on the situation.

As the Chronicle article points out, people are frustrated both in terms of getting answers but also in terms of moving ahead with solutions. Both Lake County and Cook County have been working on broadband initiatives.

Cook County ran into some barriers this fall when they were unable to get a 65 majority vote to support their plan to provide phone service in the area. (Phone service would have been one-prong in the triple play service most broadband providers want to offer and most customers want to have.) Both counties have applied for ARRA funding.

According to the Lake County Chronicle and the ARRA site, both Lake and Cook County are still in the hopper to receive funding, but neither has been contacted.

MPR points out that the recent incident does help make the case of the need for redundancy in the area. That may improve their chances for ARRA funding. Paul Bergman, a Lake County Commissioner, sent me an email emphasizing that,

The main story here is the safety of the 25,000 citizens that were affected by a phone line break. Next is the safety of the citizens of the United States because this also greatly affected the communications of the Border Patrol at the International border with Canada.

I think this incident will also help push the conversation about a statewide entity to think about security, as recommended by the Minnesota Ultra High-Speed Task Force. Here’s a excerpt from their report:

The Minnesota Ultra High-Speed Broadband Task Force recommends that the state undertake and fund a detailed study of this issue to determine the advisability and approach to addressing the goals and the detailed suggestions contained in this report.

The policies and actions necessary to move Minnesota to the front ranks of security, reliability, and redundancy rest on establishing a robust ongoing collaboration between a broad range of public, private, and citizen stakeholders.

Just as with achieving our other broadband goals, “steady leadership wins the race.” Ensuring that the state has secure, reliable, redundant broadband infrastructure is not a one-time project but rather a long-term commitment of leadership talent to an ongoing program of vigilance and collaborative problem solving.

Creating a diverse team to look at the security, privacy and various technical issues of broadband and the Internet might help to determine what happened in NE Minnesota and more importantly address solutions to prohibit this from happening in the future. The support of such as team might be helpful in directly or indirectly (through research, reports and recommendation) securing federal funding for redundant networks.

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