The Ottumwa Courier

October 12, 2013

Saturday Internet outage an intentional act

Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA - The working hypothesis: someone purposely cut the cable supplying Internet access to a portion of southeast Iowa on Saturday.

Mediacom spokesperson Phyllis Peters said their operations center became aware of an outage around 4:30 a.m. on Saturday. An investigation by technicians found damage between Knoxville and Indianola.

“We don’t have fiber optic cable there,” Peters said. “We lease the cable from a third-party provider, a traditional phone service provider.”

Which means Mediacom personnel couldn’t start tugging on wires without permission from the phone business, which had recently relocated their HQ from Iowa to Arkansas.

The outage affected Ottumwa, as well as parts of Knoxville, Eddyville and Fairfield.

“The fiber was cut at 4:37 a.m., and cut pretty bad,” Peters told the Courier.

Internet users began complaining of an outage by using Mediacom’s official forum around 7:30 a.m. Saturday. Moderators for the company said they were aware of the situation but had no estimate for a time that service would be restored.

That changed throughout the day.

“The good news,” said Peters around 5:30 p.m. Saturday, “is they thought they could have it done pretty quickly.”

At 6 p.m., Mediacom high speed Internet was online in Ottumwa.

Still, she said, her company has been putting redundancies into place so if there is a power outage or other event in a local area where a signal originates, a whole region won’t suffer an outage. A cut fiber, however, is another weakness that company engineers will work to address to avoid having such problems in the future.

“This vandalism was underground ... by someone digging,” Peters reported. “In a way, the crew thinks, the vandals were ‘digging for gold.’ The hypothesis is that they were looking for copper wire.”

Thieves steal copper tubing, wires, even grave markers for veterans, then sell them to be melted down for scrap prices. Utility companies are encouraging law enforcement to aggressively pursue those found destroying such property. Peters is hopeful that will be done in this case, regardless of the fact that the alleged thieves now realize the cable they have stolen is worthless to them.

Because what these particular hypothetical thieves apparently didn’t realize, explained Peters, is that fiber optics contain no copper wire. It contains fibers, like one long string, made from clear plastic.

One mom said she couldn't use her EBT supplemental food card while on a shopping trip even outside of Ottumwa. Though some businesses do use Internet or phone service to transmit financial information, the problem this mom had with EBT cards appears to have been from a coincidentally timed but unrelated computer problem. According to the Associated Press, "people in Ohio, Michigan and 15 other states" were unable to use the debit-type cards used in the supplemental nutrition program some families depend on for part of their shopping. In southeast Iowa, shoppers couldn't decide whether the problem was the Internet crash or the federal shutdown. Turns out it was neither. Though it now appears that the 17 state problem was not due to an outage in Iowa, U.S. Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Courtney Rowe told the Associated Press that the outage is not related to the government shutdown. It was a software glitch, which had been partially repaired by Saturday evening, she said.