A nasty windstorm blew through a couple weeks back and decimated the power infrastructure in my town. A large part of the town was out for as much as six days. While most of us New Englanders have generators to take care of the necessities (laptops, WiFi, PS3, etc.), I noticed that many of my fellow generator-powered neighbors were still unreachable via their telephone, and weren’t online. No connection to the outside world, or even down the street, and most importantly – no 911. Come to find, they were all on Comcast.
A few days into the outage, what began as fast busy signals finally began to change into telco messages telling me that these numbers were unable to receive calls. So while Comcast’s network was beginning to light back up, their customers were still dark. By now, it was about four days that I began seeing Comcast trucks finally make it onto the scene (that’s a pretty terrible response time). They were placing what appeared to be battery backup units all over town, about a mile or so apart from each other. I don’t think they were gas powered, but were more likely heavy-duty DC battery units (which work fine on NEBS-rated telco equipment). It took until almost the sixth day for Comcast to bring enough of their repeaters back up to where my neighbors were able to make phone calls. I don’t think their Internet connections came back until even later.
One might ask what the importance of all this is. Well, the other half of my neighbors (including myself) had Verizon FiOS, and while Fairpoint has since purchased Verizon in the NH area (and completely ruined it, going bankrupt in the process), the rock solid network Verizon built up still managed to stay up (and fail over, as necessary) to give us dial tone and full throughput on our high speed Internet connections – something that’s not only critical for emergencies, but can also keep you from going downright mad when stuck on a generator for six days.
To understand what’s going on here, you need to understand the differences in the technology Comcast uses versus the technology used by Verizon. Comcast, like most other cable companies stuck in the dark ages, uses coax cable for their network. Coax holds signal very poorly, and requires a repeater – or amplifier – every kilometer (about 0.62 miles). When the power goes out, the signal traveling over the Coax dies just around the corner from your house. Some cable companies use fiber converter boxes to convert the coax to fiber for the long haul back – but this too requires power. Verizon’s FiOS network, on the other hand, uses fiber optic directly to the home, which carries beams of light shot by tiny lasers between your home and the CO. Fiber optic can carry light as far as 100 miles without needing a repeater, so as long as the physical network is intact, your dial-tone and your Internet access can make it back to Verizon’s infrastructure. FiOS only requires that the battery in your FiOS panel works, or that you have a generator, and that somebody’s listening 100 miles away.
Neither Comcast nor Verizon use POTS lines around here. All voice is routed across their cable/fiber networks, respectively, from the minute it leaves your home. This means your 911 service (and all other dial tone) depend on some of the same physical wire as your Internet does. While the poles themselves were down, a majority of the wiring was still intact. The power went out as a result of over 400 transformers blowing in town, and a manual shutdown of most circuits for safety by PSNH. We had crews from Massachusetts and Pennsylvania working around the clock to bring the power infrastructure back up, however enough of the lines themselves were connected in order for Verizon’s fiber to remain connected (most of which is not underground here), and the same was true of Comcast’s coax… Comcast just didn’t have the signal strength to make it back to the CO without power.
So our FiOS was up, even though telephone poles had been torn down into the middle of streets and intersections, roads were closed, and live wires were flying around. I’m not sure how much of this is simply due to the fact that fiber doesn’t need repeater equipment to be installed all over town, or if Verizon simply built a more redundant network – I’m sure it had something to do with both. While most people would admit that fiber is a superior technology to cable, this became very apparent to those in town with Comcast.
While I understand the technologies, I haven’t been made privy to the build-out of either of these networks in town – and I don’t need to be, because while plans look good on paper, the only thing people will now ever care about in this town is how well the network can hold up when they need it. What I do know is that everyone in town who had Comcast had wished they had FiOS during those six days, and it would not surprise me in the least to learn of lives saved (or lost) due to 911 availability.
* If anyone from Comcast or Verizon would like to fill me in on any more technical details, I’d be glad to add them to this blog entry.