Thursday, May 14, 2009

What should we do with AT&T?

When I arrived at my office in Santa Cruz on Thursday April 9th, 2009, I discovered that the telephones did not work, my cell phone did not work, and our Internet connection was down. Yet we still had electrical power. We figured there was some type of outage in our area, so we closed the office and decided that we would each work from home.

At home it was the same thing, no cell phone service, no landline phone service, no Internet. When worse comes to worse with power outages here in Santa Cruz County, I take my laptop to the Coffee Cat in Scotts Valley, the next town over with more reliable PG&E service. When I arrived at the Coffee Cat, they had no service either and told me that it was out for all of Santa Cruz County.

Since I could not do any business, I thought I would take care of some personal chores and then try to go back to work again in an hour. First, I drove to the tile store to pay a deposit on an order. When I got there, they could not process my credit card, so I had to fill out a long form with all the pertinent information on it. They said they would enter the information as soon as they were back online.

Next I drove to another tile store that had some stuff the first one did not. When I tried to pay for my purchase there, they requested a check. Fortunately, I had my check book.

Next stop was the garden center to get some tomato plants. The garden store could accept credit cards, but there was a delay.

At this point, I went back to my office, but still no land line, no cell phone, and no Internet connection. I figured I would drive to Mountain View, the heart of the Silicon Valley, about an hour away. Surely Mountain View would have Internet access at one of the coffee shops. It was inconceivable that the Silicon Valley would not have Internet access.

I had to add gas to my car for this trip. At the gas station, it was cash only. Fortunately, I had enough cash.

When I started driving on highway 17, though, it was all jammed up, stop and go. At that rate, it would take two hours to get to Mountain View (and it did). In the car, I heard the news from the radio station: Somewhere in San Jose, underneath a manhole cover, the AT&T fiber optic lines had been cut. Intentionally.

Okay. Our office phone lines used AT&T and our Internet Service Provider uses AT&T as well. But our cell phones were based on Verizon. So why weren't the cell phones working? Verizon was leasing lines from AT&T. So Verizon's service went down when the AT&T lines were cut.

By 4 p.m., I was seated at Peet's Coffee on El Camino and Castro in Mountain View, finally back online, finally with cell phone service, and finally able to do some work in the remains of the day -- just one hour.

I did not arrive until 4 p.m. because there were two accidents on highway 17 on opposite sides of the highway (one Northbound and one Southbound). Both occurred at the summit and both involved overturned cars. The emergency responders were delayed due to the phone outages and finally managed to deal with the problem six hours after the crashes occurred.

It was not a very productive day and AT&T is responsible. There are a number of serious public policy questions that arise from this experience. It is obvious that the sabotage was perpetrated by someone who knew where the fiber lines aggregated, who knew how to get access, and who knew the best way to do so without detection. The perpetrator(s) was organized, had a plan, executed the plan very well, and had an escapte.

#1 why didn't AT&T have automatic failover for their outage?
#2 why didn't the Internet traffic get routed around the failure?
#3 what security does AT&T have in place to prevent such acts of sabotage? Why did the security system(s) fail?
#4 what would happen if there were a more extensive plan of sabotage so that all of Northern California would be affected? How long could the general public wait for the service to be restored? How soon would each individual's supply of cash on hand actually last? How long before we have a social breakdown?

Did AT&T provide answers to these questions? No. Did the press call AT&T on the carpet and demand answers to these questions? No.

The press ran a story that no AT&T customers should expect a refund on their bills because the outage did not last more than 24 hours. This story ran repeatedly.

The press completely missed the big story about the extreme fragility, lack of security and vulnerability of our communications infrastructure. There have been no public hearings, no investigation, and of course no follow up.

There are no suspects and no arrests for the act of sabotage, and there's been no follow up in the press.

Some individuals in the communications industry are speculating that this is just a warm up for a real terrorist attack. Alternatively, it serves as an example of what could happen in Northern California if we had a serious earthquake.

AT&T's performance is not acceptable. They failed in their most basic mission. The corporation should be dissolved.