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Thursday, November 10, 2011

FAST troubles in Nashua seem finally over, but questions remain

NASHUA – FairPoint’s fiber-optic broadband Internet system seemed mostly back to normal Wednesday, a week and a half after the Halloween snowstorm power outages caused extensive problems, but underlying questions remain.

“We are going to go back and look at the equipment we’ve had the problems with – do a full assessment, decide what the fix is,” said FairPoint spokesman Jeff Nevins. He noted that storm-related power outages seem to be more common, leading to concerns about equipment that can’t handle their effects.

FairPoint, like all utilities that depend on wires strung along roads, had its equipment suffer considerable damage in the storm, but its FAST fiber-optic network in the Nashua region was particularly hard hit because of equipment issues inside its West Pearl Street central office that led to at least 315 customers in Greater Nashua reporting loss of service.

All but a few dozen were confirmed back online Wednesday evening.

FairPoint, like Verizon when it owned the network under the brand name FiOS, declines to say how many customers use FAST.

FAST has about 120 central offices in the 24 New Hampshire communities where it exists, but approximately half of all outage complaints in the state came from the West Pearl Street office’s service area. Nashua has a second central office on Graham Drive.

For one Nashua customer, being without the lifeline of the Internet for a week and a half raises bigger questions than equipment longevity.

“I think there needs to be more transparency,”said Michael Chung of Warton Road, who works in the finance industry from home, but has been cut off for a week and a half, due to loss of FAST. Chung talked about days of going to the Nashua library or to fast food restaurants where free Wi-Fi was available, so he could work online.

“I hate it when government gets involved in something that’s a market-based product, but maybe regulation needs to be put in, in terms of more transparency. … There are unintended consequences (of regulation). But the technology is changing so fast, and it’s accelerating, that perhaps, it is forcing a re-examination,” Chung said.

“It used to be that regulation was very simple, there was just a phone line, but now there are so many ways of accessing the Internet ... and it’s even more important than the telephone was,” he said.

Internet service, whether via FAST or cable modems or even DSL over phone lines, is not regulated by the state in the way that electricity or landline telephones are – in virtually all cases, even telephone service over Internet lines is not regulated, the way traditional phones are.

One of the issues that has come up in this storm is that nobody really knows how well all these unregulated systems performed in the storm, even as they become more important in people’s lives. While traditional landline phones usually do fine in an extended power outage, due to various technical reasons, most Internet-based connectivity lasts only a few hours, as long as battery packs work.

Nevins had said Monday that FairPoint planned to “resync” the West Pearl Street office. That didn’t go as planned, he said.

“Automated resyncing, that didn’t do what we needed to do, so we had to go to manual resyncing because we didn’t want to knock people out who had gotten service back, trying to help customers without service,” he said.

The work required manual inspection of many “cards,” each of which covers about 30 customers. Even when that was done Tuesday night, FairPoint had to manually call many customers who had reported outages to see if they were back on because it wasn’t always possible to tell from the central office.

“What we’re finding is very few of the customers are without service at this point,” he said. “But we have to reach them all to confirm it.”

“We feel that all the troubles associated with the Nashua (central office) should be resolved today,” Nevins said Wednesday.

David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashua