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Sunday, November 6, 2011

How did telecom services handle the storm? Hard to say

A week ago, after the Halloween snowstorm swept through the area, Wilton and Lyndeborough experienced this connected world’s ultimate nightmare: Not only were many homes left without power, cutting off the Internet along with lights and heat, but everybody was without landline phones as well as cellphones.

This technophile’s nightmare lasted for only a day, but it illustrated how enmeshed electronic devices are to daily life and how other services besides electricity – such as the Internet and cellphones – have become nearly as integral.

“I’ve never run into a situation where an entire town was completely on an island, so to speak, with no communication with the outside world,” Police Chief Brent Hautanen said. “Even for us to talk to the state (Emergency Operations Center in Concord), we had to have volunteer ham radio operators set up at the fire station.”

Fortunately, no medical emergencies or fires occurred in the towns during a period when people couldn’t dial 911, but that’s little solace.

“We put signboards on (Route) 101, saying if you have an emergency, drive to the fire station,” Hautanen said.

“I can’t stress how concerned we were about this situation.”

He will meet with the fire chief and other officials to discuss the situation now that the post-storm cleanup is ending.

The crisis further underlines an ironic aspect of modern life: Even as methods of communicating have multiplied, with cellphones, cable-modem telephony and voice-over-Internet, it’s hard to know how well these systems perform in an emergency.

Whereas electrical services release town-by-town updates about service restoration to the public several times a day, communications companies aren’t forced to do so, even though they’re the only ones who can say how the networks did.

That seems unlikely to change, partly because of technology issues and partly because phone systems are generally so reliable that there has never been a big outcry for the data. But mostly, it’s because these services aren’t regulated utilities and therefore the government has no ability to force firms to release the information.

In Wilton, even the police became aware of the problem only when their own phones stopped working.

A spokeswoman for TDS Telecom, the Wisconsin-based firm that operates the phone system in Wilton and Lyndeborough, said the preliminary finding is that the propane tank at the central office in Wilton “was engineered incorrectly” and failed so that the generator stopped working.

“We’re working with that service provider … so we can prevent it happening again,” said Cindy Tomlinson, TDS spokeswoman.

The company will file an official report with the state Public Utilities Commission.

Wilton and Lyndeborough are among the few places in the area not served by FairPoint Communications, a legacy of their days under the independent Wilton Telephone Co.

Like many central offices, the one in Wilton handles not just landline phones, but also the signals coming from local cellphone towers seeking to hook into the national network, which is why the outage affected wireless calls.

Phones have rarely been a major concern in storms because landline phones usually operate even during blackouts. They draw so little power – and use DC power, the type that comes from batteries – that they can run off battery packs that have long been deployed throughout the phone network.

Telephone lines are also located lower on utility poles than electric lines, and so are less vulnerable to falling branches.

There apparently were no reports of major FairPoint outages during the storm, only localized outages caused by downed poles.

Companies such as Verizon Wireless, which dominates the state’s cellphone market, and Comcast, which has an increasing number of customers who make phone calls through its cable modems, say the storm caused only minor, short-term damage to their networks.

“Less than 2 percent of our sites were impacted, and we, of course, have since recovered those and are back running at 100 percent,” Mike Murphy, Verizon Wireless spokesman in New England, wrote in an e-mail response to a query. “Backup generators are permanently installed at 90 percent of our cell sites throughout New England.”

The situation is more complicated for cable-modem phones, which need power to work unless you use a corded phone with a battery backup. Comcast generally provides an eight-hour battery backup with its phones, but once it runs out, a cable-modem phone is useless until electricity is restored.

Comcast spokesman Marc Goodman said that for virtually all customers, cable TV, cable-modem Internet and cable-modem telephone services “should be restored as power comes back.”

Goodman also touted backup generator service at Comcast’s various head ends and other connection points.

So, did these firms do enough or should they do better in the future? That’s the question that the current situation can’t answer, because there’s no real-time information.

Cable telephones, unlike cellphones, are regulated by the state, but the Public Utilities Commission gets outage reports by company, not by area, which is of limited use in local emergency planning.

“I haven’t got a good solution for you. Nobody else does, either,” said Jim Van Dongen, spokesman for the New Hampshire Department of Safety, which oversees emergency management in the state.

He agreed that updated information about communication technologies – particularly cellphone coverage, which is increasingly people’s only way to call for help – would assist planning and reacting to widespread emergencies. He pointed to the 2008 ice storm, which knocked out power to some towers.

“I remember trying my cellphone during the ice storm and really having problems,” he said. “I could tell the phone was trying to latch onto the nearest tower, but couldn’t find one.”

However, he noted, “The ham radio in my car still works.”

In fact, the Emergency Operations Center has two stations for operators of ham radios. That technology, which has been around since the birth of radio, bounces signals off the electrified ionosphere.

This allows it to travel great distances using relatively little power, making it a favorite of emergency managers.

Which leads to another irony: The spread of new communication technologies is helping an old technology hang on.

David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or