After a single severed fiber optic cable resulted in a cell and internet outage throughout Morgan Hill Feb. 3—paralyzing some businesses and hindering emergency communications—city officials are asking residents to contact public officials to advocate for more redundancy in the telecommunications system.

The outage occurred Wednesday morning when a fiber line, owned by area internet and cable provider Spectrum, was cut in a construction site accident by one of the telecommunications company’s subcontractors, according to city staff. The damage occurred just off Monterey Road, south of Vineyard Boulevard.

Spectrum and Verizon’s services were impacted by the fiber cut. Frontier service was down for a portion of the day as well, but that disruption was unrelated to the fiber cut.

The city was not immediately or directly notified of the severed fiber line, and learned of the damage late in the afternoon Wednesday, “the same time as the rest of our community,” reads a Feb. 4 email from city staff to Morgan Hill residents and businesses.

The outage—which lasted about 12 hours—resulted in a loss of internet, cable TV and phone services, and was isolated to customers in Morgan Hill, city staff said.

The outage was at least the third major incident or telecommunications disruption in Morgan Hill in recent memory. In 2009, a more widespread and lengthy outage engulfed Morgan Hill and the surrounding region. That outage was caused by a vandal who intentionally cut underground fiber optic lines in south San Jose.

In August 2019, a traffic accident in Gilroy caused damage to Charter Communications equipment, resulting in an internet and cell outage in Morgan Hill.

In response to the Feb. 3 outage, City Hall officials have reached out to Spectrum and “demanded that they provide Morgan Hill with redundancy of service,” says the Feb. 4 email from the city. “Additionally, we have reached out to the California Public Utilities Commission, State Assemblyman Robert Rivas and Senator John Laird, asking that they also demand and require Spectrum to dramatically enhance the redundancy built into their system to reduce the scope, duration and impact of future outages.”

The city is also urging residents to reach out to the same parties, including Spectrum, and make similar demands. A letter posted on the city’s website is available for residents to copy and send to Spectrum, CPUC and state representatives.

The letter points to PG&E as an example, as the utility company has “models in place that enable them to reroute their services to ensure that any widespread service outage impact is minimized, and backup systems are activated.”

“Charter/Spectrum should have the same,” the letter continues.

Adding to the uncertainty in Spectrum’s infrastructure is the fact that the company leases its fiber equipment to competing providers including Verizon, Frontier and AT&T, the city’s letter states. “The backbone infrastructure behind the scenes is still the same, owned and managed by Charter/Spectrum,” says the letter. “We truly do not have an alternative solution or provider that can serve the community during these widespread outages.”

In response to questions from this newspaper, Spectrum spokesman Bret Picciolo said in a Feb. 5 email, “We have safeguards in place, including 24/7 network monitoring and power backup in critical locations, that help us prevent or minimize the impact of service disruptions. These allow us to respond quickly to any issues that arise, often before our customers are affected.”

On Feb. 3, the city’s public safety and emergency services had to immediately adapt to Morgan Hill’s lack of communications. Although the city’s 911 systems were unaffected by the fiber cut, there was some concern that VOIP and Verizon customers in need of emergency services might not be able to dial out if their service was disrupted, the city’s email says.

As a result, the city’s dispatch supervisor asked 911 to be routed to the Santa Clara Communications center, with no impact to the customer. Furthermore, the Morgan Hill Police Department doubled its patrol teams during the outage and sent officers to “highly visible and heavily traveled locations,” and to assisted living centers and other vulnerable facilities.

The outage forced the cancellation of school throughout Morgan Hill Unified School District which, like many residents and businesses, is even more reliant on cell and internet service during the Covid-19 gathering restrictions. Banks had to close their doors, and some retail and dining establishments reportedly could not process credit card transactions during the 12-hour outage. 

The Feb. 4 email notes that the City of Morgan Hill “does not and cannot regulate or contract with” any telecommunications providers, and has no control over which companies offer service to the local area. In fact, state and federal law prevents cities from regulating cable and internet services. Cable service franchises are granted by state authorities.

The city’s email also notes that before the outage, it was already planning a series of community workshops on the subject of broadband connectivity issues in Morgan Hill. The workshops will take place online Feb. 24, March 24 and April 28. Each workshop will start at 7pm, and information on how to participate or observe will be provided as the dates approach.

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Michael Moore is an award-winning journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor for the Morgan Hill Times, Hollister Free Lance and Gilroy Dispatch since 2008. During that time, he has covered crime, breaking news, local government, education, entertainment and more.


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