Outages reveal gaps in physical Internet infrastructure

Disruptions in service caused by cut fiberoptic cables are causing lawmakers to reevaluate the importance of physical Internet infrastructure security.

When vandals sliced a fiber-optic cable in the Arizona desert last month, they did more than cut off Internet access for thousands of people in the area — they exposed that many places in the nation’s Internet infrastructure don’t have backup systems.

“The more rural the location, the more likely that htere’s only one road in and out of that location,” Sean Donelan, a former infrastructure security manager at the Homeland Security Department told the Associated Press. “If someone managres to cut that fiber, you’ll generally see a one, two or three day outage.”

While most major metropolitan areas in the country have backup systems that could prevent this type of physical attack, Donelan said smaller areas and rural communities may not have that infrastructure in place.

The federal government warned about such vulnerabilities more than two decades ago; however, it has taken no steps to require Internet companies to have backup systems.


After the Arizona incident, some residents did not have Internet service for up to 15 hours. The outage, caused by a cut to an underground bundle of CenturyLink’s fiberoptic cables, caused disruptions to ATM and electronic payment, 911 emergency services and research at universities in Flagstaff.

Yet disruptions in service due to a physical problem like the one in Arizona are not entirely uncommon. A similar event happened earlier in the month in New Mexico when an electric company accidentally severed a fiber-optic line. In 2014, an underwater cable broke in the Pacific Northwest, causing a 10-day Internet and telephone disruption in Washington state’s San Juan islands.

Washington state Rep. Jeff Morris, who represents the San Juan Islands, said lawmakers are hesitant to require redundant lines in a fear that the action would lead to higher Internet and phone bills for constituents.

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