Whidbey Telecom vows infrastructure upgrade

By Meg Olson

Following back-to-back outages, Whidbey Telecom is accelerating plans to improve its backup system.

“There are probably no less than four projects in flight now to address these catastrophic outages that seem to be happening more frequently,” said Chris Burns, senior technology director with Whidbey Telecom.

On November 25 at 2:49 a.m. telephone and Internet service was cut off for all of Point Roberts after a submarine fiber cable, which provides service to the Point, was cut. Service was restored at 2:05 p.m.

“It was a cable cut failure but a switching failure as well,” Burns said. “We bought a second router and that router should have immediately taken our traffic. It didn’t. We’re a little disappointed in the performance of our service provider. We made a significant investment and it didn’t work.”

Again on November 27, a failed fiber patch in Seattle led to another outage, which lasted from 6 p.m. until approximately 11:15 p.m. Both outages were in the system of the upstream service provider that Whidbey buys capacity from, Burns said. “I’ve never had two separate back-to-back failures with a provider,” he said. “This is really, really unusual.” He added the provider had reassured Whidbey of its commitment to improving reliability.

In both outages, 911 service was down spurring the local fire department to mobilize and spread the word and inform the public how to get help in an emergency. Chief Christopher Carleton said as soon as they were aware of the situation on November 25 they printed flyers and distributed them to local businesses, “asking them to help us educate the public.”

With 911 down, Carleton said, people with an emergency would need to use a cell phone and tell the 911 operator they needed to reach dispatch in Whatcom County, or come directly to the fire station on Benson Road. He also made an announcement over the public address system on the siren adjacent to the marina, “alerting people 911 was offline.”

During the November 27 outage, Carleton said the department “went out neighborhood to neighborhood, street to street and notified the public using the PAs on our apparatus. The Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) was also activated to spread the word.”

Burns said improvements to the backup system would allow more dependable local calling. He added that whether or not customers hear a dial tone when they pick up their phone, they can still dial 945 prefix numbers. As well, 911 calls will be routed to the fire station. He added they had made notifying the local fire department a higher priority in their outage response procedures.

On December 9, the submarine cable was cut again, Burns reported, but “this time our protection switch worked as designed to our alternate fiber path … so our Point Roberts customers didn’t even know. Which is a good thing.”

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