Sunday, September 28, 2008

Phones, Power and Disasters.

I would like to point up a problem. One that became evident in the aftermath of Ike. One that I have not seen discussed anywhere else. The problem? Phones. Not Cellular Phones. Not VOIP phones, but what used to be called POTS (plain old telephone system) phones or landlines.

First a little technical history. In years gone by, the telephone system was powered by the local switching station, which had entire rooms full of batteries that were used if the power went out at the substation. They also had huge diesel powered or natural gas powered gensets that would kick in when the power went out to keep the batteries charged. This system was designed in the 1940's and 50's as a function of the national civil defense infrastructure in case the Russians ever decided to try to nuke us back to the stone age. It had three levels of backups to keep the system powered and operational in the event of a disaster of any sort. The only thing that would take down the phone system was physical damage to the lines themselves.

That is no longer the case for a large percentage of the phone system.

After the storm passed Sunday, many of us still had a working phone. We could make and receive calls to our freaked out relatives as long as we had a line powered telephone. But by Sunday evening or Monday morning, nobody who was still without power had a working landline. Why? Because the phone company has made massive changes in the way the infrastructure works over the last 10 years in order to accommodate the much higher bandwidth that customers are demanding and disaster immunity is not and has not been a priority issue. That needs to change.

In order to deliver high bandwidth data and voice systems, the phone company has had to roll out more and more fiberoptics closer and closer to the end users. Now, instead of your dial tone being generated at the local switching office as it used to be, the dial tone is most often generated in big putty colored cabinets called B-52's or local fiber loop cabinets, which are generally only a few thousand feet from your home. These boxes have small battery backup systems and are powered by the power grid, just as your house is, but they do not have a third level of backup. They do not have a standby generator integrated into the system to power them. So when power to the grid is lost, the battery backup is the last and ONLY line of defense to keep the lines functional. The cabinets DO have a connection on the side of them to allow them to be powered by a portable generator, but that means that a technician must carry a portable generator to each and every box, hook it up, fuel it, and start it, and then periodically return to refuel it, and then hope that someone who is more desperate to power their freezer or their A/C system doesn't happen along and take the generator and use it themselves.

The solution is to install a small automated standby power generation systems in the neighborhood of 5KW (about 10HP), preferably powered by a NG line at each loop box. The phone companies will complain that is cost prohibitive, but they are having to do that and much more as it is anyway. Until we demand a more robust design, the Phone companies will continue to give disaster recovery short shrift.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

We have three copper phone lines into the dwelling. Two were fine, while the one with the DSL , and several of our neighbors' DSL lines, went down Saturday. That explains it.

I saw the AT&T repairman sitting in his truck on Thursday, and I asked him if he located the problem. He said he was trying to bring the DSL lines up at the time.

I did not realize the fiber optic equipment was so vulnerable.

September 30, 2008 9:55 PM  
Blogger Rorschach said...

What kinda chaps me is that when VoIP first rolled out, there was a lot of FUD that was thrown around by the phone companies about how in the event of a power outage the phone was useless because the cable modem/router had to be powered for the phone to work. Of course what they didn't say was that UPS's and portable generators can be used for that as long as the fiberoptic amplifier/tap is powered from the grid. You see, the phone company has the same issues with their systems too, they just don't like to admit it.

September 30, 2008 10:28 PM  
Anonymous Telephone Systems Northeast Mississippi said...

I think it's normal to the phone system for not working after the typhoon specially when it's on affected area...

August 11, 2010 7:34 PM  
Blogger Rorschach said...

First off, we don't call them typhoons in the US, I was born in Mississippi and I know what they are called there and it isn't Typhoons. Obviously you aren't in Mississippi. Typhoons are in the Pacific and Indian oceans. In the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico they are hurricanes. Secondly, the issue is the degradation of the reliability of the system as fiberoptics have been deployed. The original POTS system was very reliable and assuming the lines were not physically damaged, would continue to work as long as the substations could supply power. We experience hurricanes on the Gulf Coast on a yearly basis, we generally know how to deal with them, even one as destructive as Ike was. Our infrastructure must be hardened against them, but unfortunately construction standards from other parts of the country have been creeping into our infrastructure and are degrading our infrastructure's ability to withstand hurricanes.

August 16, 2010 8:15 AM  

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