Journal of the San Juan Islands


Top Ten of 2013: No. 1; Islands felled by fiber-optic failure

December 30, 2013 · Updated 4:36 PM

CenturyLink Northwest Region President Brian Stading holds a section of underwater fiber-optic cable, similar to the one that runs between Lopez and San Juan islands, and that was severed Nov. 5. / Steve Wehrly

Electronic ties that bind the San Juan Islands to the rest of the world were disrupted for 10 days when an underwater fiber-optic cable between Lopez and San Juan islands was severed just after 3 a.m. on Nov. 6.

Telephone and internet services, including most cellphones, were unavailable to all - except county offices and some businesses utilizing OPALCO Island Network broadband facilities.

By Thursday, CenturyLink, owner and operator of the high-capacity fiber cable, had located the break in San Juan Channel and marshaled divers, technicians, a large repair barge with a crane, two tugboats and other assorted machinery to address the break. CenturyLink said it was working “around the clock” to restore service.Cablecrane

Failure of 9-1-1 emergency communications was an immediate concern for public safety officials, who scrambled to alert islanders to the outage and provide patchwork emergency telephone communications on each island. Use of 9-1-1 service was restored by Monday, Nov. 11.

Less than four weeks later, the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, the state agency responsible for regulating the telecom industry, held a hearing in Friday Harbor in which CenturyLink was routinely criticized for failure to adequately inform island residents and urged to provide redundant communications channels, which CenturyLink said was already underway.

The cost: replacing the broken cable, $2 million; business disruption, $200,000 or more; 15 days of service credits granted by CenturyLink, at least $250,000; loss of trust and goodwill, incalculable.

The “silver lining”: support for OPALCO’s proposal to extend its own fiber-based broadband system increased markedly. Just days later, the OPALCO Board of Directors directed the utility to speed up fiber deployment throughout the county as an alternative to, or perhaps in cooperation with, CenturyLink and Rock Island Technology Solutions.

— Steve Wehrly


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