This short article details how a burning tree cut off fiber optic access for six small towns in Western Massachusetts. This included Ashfield, Colrain, Cummington, Heath, Plainfield, and Rowe. I not writing about this today because this fiber cut was extraordinary, but because it’s unfortunately very ordinary and usual. There are fiber cuts every day that isolate communities by cutting Internet access.
It’s not hard to understand why this happens in rural America. In much of the country, the fiber backbone lines that support Internet access to rural towns use the same routes that were built years ago to support telephone service. The telephone network is configured using a hub and spoke, and all of the towns in a region have a single fiber line into a single central tandem switch that was the historic focal point for regional telephone switching.
Unfortunately, a hub and spoke network (which resembles the spokes of a wagon wheel) does not have any redundancy. Each little town or clusters of towns typically had a single path to reach the telephone tandem – and today to reach the Internet.
The problem is that an outage that historically would have interrupted telephone service now interrupts broadband. This one cut in Massachusetts is a perfect example of how reliant we’ve become on broadband. Many businesses shut down completely without broadband. Businesses take orders and connect with customers in the cloud. Credit card processing happens remotely in the cloud. Businesses are often connected to distant corporate servers that provide everything from software connectivity to voice over IP. A broadband outage cuts off students taking classes from home and adults working from home. An Internet outage cripples most work-from-home people who work for distant employers. A fiber cut in a rural area can also cripple cell service if the cellular carriers use the same fiber routes.
The bad news is that nobody is trying to fix the problem. The existing rural fiber routes are likely owned by the incumbent telephone companies and they are not interested in spending money to create redundancy. Redundancy in the fiber world means having a second fiber route into an area so that the Internet doesn’t go dead if the primary fiber is cut. One of the easiest ways to picture a redundant solution is to picture a ring of fiber that would be equivalent to the rim of the wagon wheel. This fiber would connect all of the ‘spokes’ and provide am alternate route for Internet traffic.
To make things worse, the fiber lines reaching into rural America are aging. These were some of the earliest fiber routes built in the US, and fiber built in the 1980s was not functionally as good as modern fiber. Some of these fibers are already starting to die. We’re going to be faced eventually with the scenario of fiber lines like the one referenced in this article dying, and possibly not being replaced. A telco could use a dying fiber line as a reason to finally walk away from obsolete copper DSL in a region and refuse to repair a dying fiber line. That could isolate small communities for months or even a few years until somebody found the funding to replace the fiber route.
There have been regions that have tackled the redundancy issue. I wrote a blog last year about Project Thor in northwest Colorado where communities banded together to create the needed redundant fiber routes. These communities immediately connected critical infrastructure like hospitals to the redundant fiber and over time will move to protect more and more Internet traffic in the communities from routine and crippling fiber cuts.
This is a problem that communities are going to have to solve on their own. This is not made easier by the current fixation of only using grants to build last-mile connectivity and not middle-mile fiber. All of the last mile fiber in the world is useless if a community can’t reach the Internet.