When asked to name one of the great things about our network, I have to say it’s our fiber footprint. With over 57,000 miles of intercity and 27,000 miles of metro fiber, our footprint is a grand design of both buried and aerial paths. It makes us unique, but with that also comes one of the worst things about our network, and that is the different types of damage we see to our fiber plant. From errant excavators to crazed squirrels, there are so many different ways to wreak havoc on our network, it boggles the imagination!
While I was watching Letterman’s “Top Ten” reasons the government cannot agree on resolving the debt ceiling crisis, I started thinking. Over the years I have seen fiber cuts that range from frustrating to downright bizarre. And just when I think I’ve seen it all, I am rudely reminded that anything can happen, and typically does. So allow me to present my top ten most annoying and bizarre causes of fiber cuts (with real photos from my team):
- The biggest pain and the most common cause of fiber cuts come from construction companies and excavators that don’t call before they dig! One time we had an outage in California where the excavation company had dug a trench and found a steel pipe about 4 feet underground. Now, you would think that they would have called someone and tried to make sure they weren’t cutting into something dangerous like gas or oil, but no. They jumped down in the trench with a saw and cut through the pipe and into our fiber! What a group of Einsteins!
- While we can try to reason with humans and publicize our underground cable, there is nothing we can do about our next biggest pain in the rear, and that’s squirrels! Of all the animals in the whole world, almost all of our animal damage comes from this furry little nut eater. Squirrel chews account for a whopping 17% of our damages so far this year! But let me add that it is down from 28% just last year and it continues to decrease since we added cable guards to our plant. Honestly, I don’t understand what the big attraction is or why they feel compelled to gnaw through cables. Our guys in the field have given this some thought and jokingly suspect the cable manufacturers of using peanut oil in the sheathing. If you have any new ideas on how we can combat these wayward rodents, I’d love to hear from you. We are always looking for ways to improve.
- Our next biggest offender would have to be Mother Nature and her extreme weather conditions. I could fill 10 pages with stories from the hurricanes, mud slides and ice storms we’ve had to deal with. One incident that sticks out in my mind was during mud slides in Utah a few years back. We were trying to repair a cable across a ravine that was literally over a quarter of a mile wide and filled with raging water. Every piece of equipment and truck we had was stuck in mud up to the axels. We launched a couple of Sea-doos and a boat to try and pull the cable across the ravine to make the repairs, but no luck. We finally had to shoot the cable across with a line gun. We got the job done and luckily no one was hurt. But it was pretty scary.
- Speaking of big trucks, vehicle damage is another one we have to contend with. From people running into telephone poles to truckers underestimating the height of their rigs – it’s all part of the problem. One time in Pennsylvania a trucker got lost and accidently turned down a residential street. His rig got tangled up in a mess of overhead phone cables. But that didn’t stop him! He kept pushing forward until his rig was tied up like a Christmas present. He was dragging a 20 foot section of broken telephone pole down the street before he stopped to see what was impeding his progress. Future DOT Instructor??
- Putting phone cables and electrical cables on the same pole can be convenient, but it can sometimes cause an outage by default. Such was the case in Boise, Idaho when strong winds during a dust storm blew down one telephone pole. The stress on the cable pulled down a second pole, then a third, until 19 poles were lying on the ground. But that’s not what caused the outage. Our cable was down, but still intact, until one of the poles sent an arc of electricity that started a grass fire which melted the fiber. Our guys repaired the cable while airplanes flew overhead dumping fire retardant to battle the blazes. Incoming!
- One of the dumbest reasons I can think of for an outage is downright vandalism. It doesn’t happen all that often, but it certainly happens more often than it should. People sometimes cut the fiber thinking it has value and can be sold in pieces. Or they vandalize it in other ways. We can attribute about 7% of our annual outages to people using our fiber cable for gun practice. More often than not, it happens in the rough parts of town. Making the repairs usually requires that we dispatch a couple of body guards with our techs, just to keep everyone out of harm’s way. By the way – it’s not copper!
- Everything I’ve mentioned so far can be considered all in a day’s work. But every now and then I hear about something so out of the norm that I just want to say “What? Are you kidding me??” Such was the case with a recent outage in California. A small airplane was attempting to land at the Burbank International Airport and overshot the runway and crashed in a residential area. It clipped the poles that our aerial fiber was attached to, causing everything to come down. No one was killed. But I wouldn’t want to fly with that guy!
- And earlier this year, there was an ice storm in Chalfont, Pennsylvania that brought down some tree limbs. The limbs fell onto the PECO Electric utility primary power which crossed into the communications space. The cable caught on fire in multiple places while suspended in the air and surrounded by ice covered limbs. Fire and ice!
- You never know what to expect during natural disasters. I would go up against a squirrel any day rather than encounter some of the other creatures that are unearthed during a hurricane. Alligators, snakes and sharks are all creatures you don’t ever want to encounter on a fiber cut. But sometimes it happens. For example, during the cleanup efforts after hurricane Katrina, one of our field managers was about 2 miles inland when he spotted a three foot long shark in one of the trenches beside our fiber. That is probably the craziest animal encounter we’ve had in the field to date!
- Lastly, never under estimate a Southern gentleman with a backhoe and a shotgun. Remember how I feel about vandalism? Well I’ve saved the best for last. There was a landowner whose property stretched across the border between Georgia and Florida. He was mad at Florida DOT because he didn’t get enough money when they purchased the right-of-way to widen the highway that cut through his property. Level 3 had fiber in the right-of-way, so he was mad at us too. One day he decided on revenge, so he jumped onto his backhoe and drove across the state line from Georgia to Florida, right up to the edge of the ROW and dug a 2 foot wide by 10 foot long trench. He then got down in the hole and cut the fiber and the ducts. Then he moved 15 feet south and dug a second trench until he found more fiber and ducts and cut them in a second location.When our field techs got on the scene, Mr. Landowner was waiting on them with his 12 gauge shotgun! He refused to let anyone repair the fiber on threat of death! When law enforcement arrived, Mr. Landowner had moved back over to the Georgia side and claimed he had no idea how the damage had been done. He was out of their jurisdiction. There were no witnesses, and all the law enforcement could do was talk to him and try to get him to confess. At least we were able to repair the damage. But during the conversation with the law, Mr. Landowner spewed anger and said he was going to come back tomorrow and cut the fiber again. Well, that was admission of intent to commit a crime and the rules of jurisdiction didn’t apply anymore. Ha! He was arrested and we were able to see frontline justice after all.
During all of this, natural disasters, impossible odds, wild animals and angry landowners, I am thankful that I have a team of experienced professionals who are willing to get down into the trenches, make the necessary repairs and restore service fast. No matter what they encounter, this team can handle it.