People throughout the area couldn't contact the outside world for about 9 hours this past Saturday, February 9. Cell phones for most providers were looking for service, long distance calls in and out of the area resulted in beeping or static, dial-up from internet service providers like Momentum stopped working, and credit card transactions at restaurants and grocery stores didn't go through. It was an inconvenience to most, and the outage surprised people by how many services it affected.
The outage was traced to a buried fiber optic cable that was inadvertently cut by a property owner. Bill Kula, spokesman for Verizon, stated that excavation work was being done on some private property 3 miles northwest of Comfort on US Highway 87. A cable encased in plastic tubing was cut at 2:39 PM on Saturday; while these accidents do happen, they rarely happen with this kind of cable.
"This is called interoffice fiber," Kula said. "It's significant because it's a conduit for local and long distance traffic for not just Verizon, but also AT&T and other, smaller companies. This specific fiber hands off traffic between main switching centers in Fredericksburg and San Antonio." The cable handles voice and data for a wide number of communication providers. For example, an AT&T customer in San Antonio couldn't get through to a friend in Marble Falls.
About 25,000 Verizon local phone customers were affected, predominantly in the 830 area code, Verizon's spokesman reported. Fredericksburg, Blanco, Marble Falls, Boerne, Granite Shoals, Johnson City, Stonewall, Willow City, Horseshoe Bay, and Round Mountain were isolated by the outage. Customers could make calls locally, but not make or receive long distance calls.
"It would be very different if a local fiber were cut," said Kula. "This particular type of fiber cut caused the problems to be wide-spread."
"We were able to have technicians get out to this property, and splice the fiber back together," Kula said. "W worked as quickly as we could. We are making sure that all of the underground cable is clearly marked. As with buried fiber, from time to time, accidents to happen. When they do, it can create a trickling effect."
Verizon makes it clear that the cut was purely inadvertent, and, for 9 hours, it was difficult for people in the Hill Country to communicate until 11:20 PM that night when services returned. It's a rare occasion for an outage to last several hours, but when an interoffice cable like the one cut in Comfort is severed, the outage will last longer.
As for the lack of cell service in the area, Kula explains, "a lot of people don't realize that much of wireless [cell phone] traffic, while it moves from one cell site to another, also traverses over the traditional landline telephone network. When you have an interoffice fiber cut, it also has an impact on wireless service."
Verizon reminds everyone who is planning to do work that requires digging into the ground that it's important to look for markings that show where underground utilities are located. Markers such as paint, flags, and metal posts are positioned over the cables. "When in doubt, we encourage construction crews and private home owners to call before they dig," advises Kula. "1-800-DIG-TESS is a good number for people; it puts you in a central repository for groups that know where utilities are located."