Tuesday, September 18, 2012

the disconnect

Cable = Most Important Word in the Merrimack Valley
It's been a couple of weeks now since "the disconnect" and the post-disconnect analysis is in full swing.Today's Eagle Tribune has an article about the aftermath: "Something that valuable has to be secured." The Town of North Andover is reflecting on what happened and planning for how to cope with the next great disconnect. So here I am finally getting around to finishing the post I started about it.

For a few days at the end of August I had no Internet, phone, or TV here at the edge of the universe. Turns out lots of people in Lawrence and North Andover were in the same boat. A homeless man’s mattress caught on fire. The flaming mattress was under a bridge over the Merrimack River -- the bridge where Verizon's conduits, packed with copper wires and fiber optic cables, also cross the Merrimack. The burning mattress took down the backbone of Verizon’s network for this region. The outage mainly affected the Merrimack Valley, but it even touched cities as far away as Gloucester.
NECN Truck Covering the Story

Yes folks, the Interwebz still depends on wires. Yes, ATMs and credit card processors and frequent buyer rewards points at Panera Bread and a whole host of other services we take for granted depend on wires. Melted plastic conduits under a bridge disconnected thousands of people. Everybody from Good Day Cafe to the Lowell Spinners felt the effects. This outage shut down the Registry of Motor Vehicles in Lawrence and Wilmington. The Eagle Tribune had an article asking "How vulnerable are we?" 
Verizon Trucks Lined Up Along the North Canal

The answer, I'm afraid, is that we're way more vulnerable than we think we are. Most of us never think about the infrastructure that supports communications.  We tend not to think of the Internet as a physical thing. What few people using their smart phones, WiFi, and their computers realize is that their calls and data still travels through wires - copper cables and fiber cables. Yup, there's still a lot of copper cable out there. Many members of the Connected Generation (OK, and their elders too maybe -- if they're not techies or telecoms people) think their voice or data travels through the air to a cell tower and  then through air to another cell phone. The towers are connected by wires -- either copper or fiber cable.  And yes, the great disconnect affected cellular coverage too.

More Verizon Trucks Along the North Canal
I had recently started reading Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet by Andrew Blum, so found both synchronicity and irony in the great disconnect. Blum talks about how he hadn't really thought about the Internet infrastructure until a squirrel chewed through the wires at his Brooklyn apartment and his WiFi went out. A squirrel inspired him to explore where the Internet cable outside his house actually goes.

Well, now I know that the FiOS cable to/from my house crosses the Merrimack River under the Central Bridge in Lawrence. It was a nice day for a walk and without Internet I couldn't work, so I grabbed my camera and went for a long walk.  There's nothing like an excuse to photograph the historic buildings and canals of Lawrence, not to mention the Great Stone Dam. The views of the mill buildings from the Central Bridge are excellent and there's a walkway along the North Canal.

Tight Quarters Under the Bridge
There were Verizon trucks everywhere. They were lined up along the canal. They were under the bridge. There were two or three of them in front of me at every stop light. Additional trucks from Phoenix Communications were there with huge rolls of fiber optic cable. As I walked across the bridge and along the canal, I ran into a few Verizon workers who had been working around the clock to bring back service. Real people fixing physical things in the material world. I made a point of thanking them for their hard work. The folks splicing cables under the bridge are not the ones who didn't plan for redundancy and security.

There are parallels here to both the National Grid response to the October snowstorm last year (power out for over 5 days  at my place -- longer other places) and to the Heroku outage on top of the AWS outage caused by the violent thunderstorms in Virginia. Insufficient redundancy and "cloud on top of cloud" architecture assume that nothing physical will ever break.  Guess what? Things break. Weather knocks down trees and takes out power. Flaming mattresses melt PVC conduits. We need to plan for that. In the olden days of the Ma Bell monopoly, they actually did plan for weather and disasters and they had a goal of 99.999% reliability.  While I definitely don't think we need a monopoly like that ever again, we do need more attention to reliability and contingency planning. We also need a whole lot more communication among the various owners of all the pieces that make up the Internet infrastructure.

While I was incommunicado, the sun rose and set a couple of times, the Red Sox lost a couple of games, my cousin Stephan and his lovely wife Lisa welcomed their new son to the world, water flowed over the Great Stone Dam, cormorants stood on rocks in the Merrimack to dry their wings,  and cedar waxwings flitted past the window of Three Dogz Diner in the physical world. Mountains and rivers remain.

Fiber Optics Experts
Verizon Truck Next to Canal

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