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by Stephen Lawson, IDG News Service (San Francisco Bureau)

Fiber Cuts Slash Silicon Valley’s Net Arteries

Apr 10, 20094 mins
Critical InfrastructureDisaster RecoveryInternet

Apparent vandalism cut off wired and wireless service to thousands and shut two IBM facilities

SAN FRANCISCO (04/09/2009) – Cuts in fiber-optic lines early Thursday at two locations near Silicon Valley shut down two IBM facilities and affected an organization in charge of Internet domain names.

The cuts, in San Carlos and San Jose, California, also disrupted wired and wireless telecommunications services for thousands of users in the region. AT&T, which owns the main affected fibers, expected service to be restored by Thursday evening. Police suspect vandals did the damage, which would have involved removing manhole covers and using cutting tools to sever thick cables that each contain many strands of fiber. AT&T, Verizon and Sprint Nextel users were affected.

The main cut took place in the southern part of San Jose, just a few miles from the IBM Silicon Valley Lab, a research center for cloud computing and other technologies. That lab was effectively shut down by the outage, as was an IBM manufacturing facility on Hellyer Avenue, near the site of the cut. Apart from small maintenance crews, employees were told to work from home, IBM spokeswoman Jenny Hunter said. Though IBM demonstrates some of its cloud systems at the Silicon Valley Lab, it doesn’t host public cloud services there.

In addition, at least one server was affected at the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), which translates between domain names and Internet addresses. The outage cut off one of IANA’s public test systems for DNSSEC (Domain Name System Security Extensions), an emerging protocol designed for more secure domain-name lookup, according to an official notice on a DNSSEC mailing list.

But the cuts did not seem to affect the technology giants of Silicon Valley, whose lifeblood is high-speed Internet access, mostly delivered over such fibers. Google, Yahoo and Cisco Systems said their operations were not affected.

In San Jose, vandals apparently entered a manhole between a highway and a railroad track at about 1:30 a.m. and cut four AT&T cables. In San Carlos, about 40 miles north of the San Jose site, some AT&T cables as well as some Sprint cables were cut underground. That attack apparently happened between about 4 a.m. and 5 a.m., said San Carlos Police Department spokesman Rich Cinfio. The San Jose incident affected people in a small area of the city of San Jose, as well as in Santa Cruz and San Benito counties to the south, according to San Jose Police Department spokesman Sgt. Ronnie Lopez. Because emergency 911 calling service was disrupted, law enforcement deployed more officers in some areas to make them more accessible, he said.

AT&T said both wired and wireless customers lost service, because the lines to some cellular base stations were cut off. Spokesman John Britton would not estimate how many users were affected. About 52,000 wireline customers of Verizon Communications in nearby Morgan Hill and Gilroy were cut off because Verizon also uses the AT&T fibers, said Jon Davies, a Verizon spokesman.

The Sprint fiber that was cut in San Carlos served customers of its wireline IP data service for businesses, as well as some Sprint cellular towers. Within a few hours, Sprint had restored service by rerouting traffic, spokeswoman Crystal Davis said.

Such deliberate fiber cuts are rare, according to AT&T’s Britton. Most are caused by construction crews mistakenly digging in areas where fiber is laid. As San Jose and San Carlos police continued to investigate the incidents late Thursday afternoon, AT&T announced a US$100,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the people who cut the cables.

The incidents took place just days after contracts covering nearly 100,000 AT&T workers represented by the Communications Workers of America expired. The union last week approved a strike against the carrier if it can’t get contracts it considers fair in several areas of the country. Some observers have raised the question whether the vandalism was part of a union sabotage campaign, a suggestion the CWA rejected.

“We would never condone any kind of destruction like this,” spokeswoman Libby Sayre said. “We didn’t do it this time. We would never do it.”