Verizon outage spotlights safety concerns

Company says it’s made improvements
Thu, 08/15/2019 - 7:45pm
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In the wake of the recent four-day service interruption, Verizon Wireless is adding capacity to its network on Block Island after completing repairs and improvements to its backup systems. According to a Verizon official, the work that’s been done will help prevent future service interruptions.

The story of a woman who was unable to call emergency services while her husband was suffering a heart attack at the beach during Verizon’s outage shines a spotlight on the importance of reliable cellphone service for public safety purposes. Due to a fiber connection and hardware issue, Verizon’s cellphone service was interrupted for four days on Block Island, from July 27-30.

Fortunately, Dave Sniffen, Block Island’s Recreation Director, was on-hand at the Fred Benson Town Beach and used his AT&T subscribed cellphone to call emergency services. Unfortunately, there is not always going to be someone with reliable cellphone service on-hand to save the day.

Verizon’s service has been limited in certain areas on Block Island, and unreliable or spotty at times. As Police Chief Vin Carlone told The Times, that can create a serious public safety issue. “Only about half the island has cellphone reception,” said Carlone, who noted that people without cellphone service need to find an alternative method to contact the Police Department during an emergency.

As a result of the outage, Verizon improved its network equipment and designated Block Island a “major tier 1 site.” That means Verizon’s Network Operations Center is aware that the island is a priority in the event of an emergency situation. Verizon said the outage was due to failure of its backup systems after a fiber connection issue led to the service interruption.

The company repaired the fiber connection issue it initially reported as the crux of the problem; that work is related to the mainland fiber circuit that carries Block Island wireless traffic. Verizon also said it repaired its redundant backup systems, and made improvements to its network. 

David Weissmann, Public Relations Manager for the Verizon Consumer Group, told The Times this week that the “fiber and microwave redundancy is complete. The work that has been completed will increase redundancy, which will help prevent interruptions in service.”

Weissmann said Verizon made “improvements” and took “measures to add redundancy to the fiber route serving the island.” Verizon will be adding a new node and made “additional enhancements that will increase capacity and help alleviate some congestion,” he said.

“I don't know the exact location” where the node will be installed, said Weissmann. “But it is in an area with existing coverage, because it will be focused on adding capacity.” A node is a small cell hardware device, or short canister-style antennae, that is affixed to the top of a utility pole to bolster network capacity.

As for the importance of being designated a major tier 1 site, Weissmann said, “For competitive reasons, we don't share information on how Verizon manages our network.”  

Bill McCombe, co-director of Block Island’s Emergency Management Task Force, said the Verizon outage is a cautionary tale. “We’ve become so dependent on our electronic devices that people need to be conscious of alternatives if they don’t work. As good as technology can be, there is no guarantee that it will always be reliable.”

McCombe also said, “We’ve become so reliant on our technology that we often forget our next option. It’s important to be aware and know where the next options are in preparation for an emergency.” Those options, he said, include alternative methods of contact, such as knowing where the nearest landline is located in case your cellphone loses power or service.

“It was unfortunate having the interruption of service on the island,” said McCombe, “but it was good to see that information about it was available on the Block Island Bulletin Board and The Block Island Times. The reality is: Verizon doesn’t want to be out of service. They’re losing money when that happens.”