UPDATE: Damage to a single optical fiber caused Thursday night's statewide phone outage
Sovernet says problem was at another company's facility in Burlington
WHITE RIVER JUNCTION - A two-hour phone "service event" disruption that effected thousands of customers across Vermont over into the western edge of New Hampshire on Thursday evening, including several police and fire stations, happened because a single strand of glass optical fiber thinner than a human hair was damaged, but not completely broken off, at a facility in Burlington, telecommunications officials said Friday.
“An actual fiber break would have been better,” explained Judy Eshelman, Customer Service Director for Sovernet Communications, the Bellows Falls-based telecommunication company whose "seven-digit" residential and business phone lines were effected. Eshelman said that if the fiber had simply snapped, “This would all have been detected by a protection switch and over in a millisecond,” because the system would have automatically shifted to a backup.
Instead, the damaged optical fiber continued to allow enough signals to pass along its length so that it appeared to the computers which continuously monitor the system that things were functioning; however, to humans trying to hold a conversation over the misfiring line the result was an unintelligible garble of sounds and syllables which Sovernet described somewhat euphemistically as “choppy voice transmissions.”
“Instead of `failing over’ to a backup system it just kept going because the signal was partially passing through,” Sovernet Director of Marketing Sharon Combes-Farr explained.
Even though the damaged fiber was at a facility in Burlington owned by an outside vendor which provides Sovernet with access to what is known as `the backbone’ of the larger national phone system, “We had to find where the problem was ourselves and then manually activate the fail-over,” Combes-Farr noted.
On Friday Sovernet sent a preliminary report to the Vermont Department of Public Service saying that the outage, which lasted between roughly 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. Thursday night before it was cleared up, “intermittently effected” several thousand customers during that time frame.
Despite the wide geographical reach of the problem, Combes-Farr said Friday that the company had only gotten calls from 30 customers reporting it.
During the outage fire and police dispatchers from Rutland to Hartford and even Lebanon, New Hampshire were alarmed to find that their so-called “seven digit” administrative phone lines were useless; however, state officials and Sovernet took pains to stress afterwards that 911 services had not been effected during incident.
“We were assured that all 911 calls were handled during this service event,” Eshelman said, a point which was echoed by Jim Porter, Director of Vermont’s Telecommunications and Connectivity Division at the Department of Public Service.
Porter said the way the fiber optic backbone system is set up meant that the Sovernet outage occurred within areas of Vermont that are also serviced by FairPoint (which is most of the state) but areas where independent telephone companies operate were not effected.
“This appears to be a problem with one fiber and not a systemic problem,” Porter said after reviewing the initial reports Friday. “(Sovernet) will do a `root cause’ analysis and at some point we will ask for a more formal report.”
Eshelman said Thursday’s event was the first time in her 22 years with Sovernet that the company had experienced this kind of widespread outage, saying, “It was an unusual event and we are learning everything we can from this.”