As Silicon Valley slept a year ago tonight, the wireless wonderland in which it existed — a dream world where mobile devices made instant communication not only possible, but almost unavoidable — disappeared suddenly, like Alice, down a hole.
In this case, it was a manhole in South San Jose, which someone breached in the middle of the night and cut fiber-optic cables critical to a vast communications network. When residents of Santa Clara, Santa Cruz and San Benito counties awoke the morning of April 9, it was to a world completely remade with the stroke of a chain saw.
Despite a reward of a quarter-million dollars and investigations by San Jose police, the Santa Clara County sheriff and the FBI, no one was arrested for cutting the lines, which belonged to AT&T. It now seems unlikely anyone ever will be prosecuted, an outcome Jennifer Ponce, coordinator of emergency services for Morgan Hill, called “depressing.”
Equally troubling is the likelihood that it will happen again, unless Silicon Valley tech giants, which rely on the underground network of cables and wires to go on reinventing the future, make a large capital investment in upgrading the grid.
“I don’t think you can ever prevent something like that from happening without a major infrastructure investment from the private sector,” said Dave Snow, Santa Clara County logistics section chief.
Someone undoubtedly will have to make a large capital investment
to assure that all the grids — electric, transportation and communications — aren’t knocked out for days during such natural disasters as earthquakes. Cash-strapped city and county governments would like to shift the burden to companies that profit from those systems.
“The one thing you can’t do in government nowadays,” Snow said, “is buy things just in case. A large part of our effort is going toward pre-disaster contracting. The first day or two you’re on your own, but you know that support is on its way.”
One company that has made a significant investment in keeping the communications network running smoothly is Cisco, which dispatched its Darth Vader-like NERV (Network Emergency Response Vehicle) to Morgan Hill last year, allowing that city to quickly restore its 911 service. “It’s got cameras, satellite reconnections, and devices that allow you to cross-connect radio frequencies,” said Bert Hildebrand, Santa Clara County director of communications. “They can restore telephone and Internet, which is a capability we don’t have. It’s very cool.”
Cows & colts
Having learned its lesson the hard way, AT&T has already begun making one improvement to the system. The company actually had backup fiber-optic lines, right next to the bundle that got cut. “We had the protection, but it was in the same manhole,” said AT&T spokesman John Britton. Since then, the company has devised a “different geography” for its backup lines expected to be ready by midsummer.
Though the sabotaged wires belonged to AT&T, the incident also knocked out a bundle of lines the company leased to Verizon, sole provider of landline service in South County. Additional cuts were later discovered to wires at two locations in San Carlos, and at Hayes Avenue and Cottle Road in San Jose. Verizon lost service to more than 52,000 households, including disruptions to cellular and Internet service.
beefed up its fleet COWs (cell on wheels) and COLTs (cell on light truck) to handle such emergencies in the future. And other companies have made similar investments.
Wireless communication had become like the air we breathe — all around us and always available — and then it was gone. Landlines went dead, cell phones didn’t work and the Internet flickered off in Morgan Hill, Gilroy and San Jose. It took more than 24 hours to fully restore service, a disconcertingly dark day during which the entire communications grid’s vulnerability to a single point of failure was exposed.
“Wireless calls or data connections are only wireless between the device and the nearest antenna,” explained Heidi Flato, spokeswoman for Verizon Wireless. “From there, they travel over fiber optic systems, through switches and other facilities. Basically, your cell phone is only as good as the network it’s riding on.”
Sabotage was immediately suspected because AT&T’s contract with the Communications ers of America had expired only four days before the lines were cut. After the incident, AT&T spokesman John Britton noted that opening the manhole cover where the fiber optic lines were buried required a special tool.
To pull off such a caper, said Dave Snow, the county’s logistics section chief, “You kind of have to know what you’re doing. Nobody would stand in water and operate a chain saw on electrical lines unless they knew exactly what they were doing.”
AT&T offered a reward of $100,000 for information leading to arrest and conviction, and the next day raised it to $250,000, one of the largest bounties for an act of vandalism in the company’s history. “That is a huge, huge sum of money,” Britton said, “so we obviously were hoping that would be sufficient motivation to generate a lot of positive leads for the police.”
When the FBI joined the investigation, authorities even considered a legal provision — enacted after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — which made vandalism against a telecommunications network “an act of terrorism,” according to Britton.
He said AT&T’s asset protection division worked closely with police. “We definitely wanted to see whoever committed these terrible acts prosecuted and convicted,” Britton said. “It went far beyond an attack on the network. It was an attack on the people who live in the communities served by the network.”
And then, on Sept. 1, the criminal investigation by San Jose police ended almost as suddenly as it began.
That was the same day the Communications Workers of America approved a new contract with AT&T. “I’m not going to speculate about the incident,” CWA communications director Candice Johnson said in an e-mail. She denied any culpability by union members.
The communications giant’s spokesman refused to speculate on a connection between the simultaneous ending of union strife and the criminal investigation. “All those labor things are in the rearview mirror,” Britton said simply. “From what I know, we cooperated 100 percent with the police department.”
AT&T has bolstered its security, attempting to limit the damage that any future attack could cause, but not even a company of its scope can post a guard over every manhole. “Customers today are demanding connectivity everywhere,” Britton said. “Not just in homes and businesses, not just to make a phone call, or get an e-mail, or send a text message. It’s a tweet, or they want to check in on Facebook, and you now have millions of people who are conditioned to do that. When it’s taken away, it affects them in a big way. And we don’t like it when that happens.”