Silicon Valley Cable-Cutters: The Real Harm

How many people did the cable cutters kill? This is not an attempt to be overdramatic, but when you cut the fiber optic that provides dial tone and Internet to large numbers of people in four counties, as well as their 911 centers, you put lives at risk. If the outage continues long enough, at some point this risk becomes sad reality.

Did it is this case? We don’t know yet and may never know for sure, but intentionally putting so many people at risk pushes vandalism to the edge of being terrorism. And terrorists should be dealt with harshly.

To my way of thinking as a volunteer emergency responder, the intentional cutting of fiber optic cables early Thursday in San Jose and San Carlos, California almost certainly resulted in slower emergency response times or made it impossible for hospitals and doctors to communicate among themselves or with patients. Police and fire services were likewise affected.

Perhaps it took longer for a fire or vehicle accident to be reported. Maybe someone’s grandmother pressed her emergency medical alert button and no help was sent.

I pray none of this happened, but I fear something may have -- though it might take days or weeks to find out about it. As I write this, about 6 p.m. Pacific Time on Thursday, full service has yet to be restored.

As the FCC looks at national broadband, with a $7.2 billion bankroll of stimulus money to spend, I hope it will take a serious look at adding more redundancy to the network. My guess is there are many places where a few severed cables can cut services to hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions.

While the most common culprit in these outages might be a backhoe, this incident shows what a human being can accomplish in just a few hours. In this case, someone apparently pulled two manhole covers and climbed down into the cable vaults below.

While I am certain manhole covers can be secured -- as they are on Presidential motorcade routes -- I can only image it’s expensive, time consuming, and a real pain to undo when repairs need to be made.

Better, I think, to invest in technology than blowtorches. We live in an uncertain and threatening world. This attack on our broadband network and telephones should be a heads up for us, just as it could certainly inspire similar attacks.

AT&T has offered a $100,000 reward for an arrest and conviction in this case. The criminal(s) appeared to be well-informed, well-equipped, and in San Carlos, willing to stand in several feet of water while cutting the cables. What I really hope is that the criminal(s) are arrested and charged as terrorist(s). Additional charges should be added if deaths or injuries resulted from the outages.

I do not care what the specific motivation, I believe we need to make an example here of how we intend to deal with these incidents in the future. College kids having “fun,” angry union members, or worse, I don’t care.

There is no limit to the contempt we should have for people who put so many at risk, whatever their motivation. Likewise, we must seriously commit to using our technology -- and our dollars -- to make their misdeeds impossible to repeat.

David Coursey is part of a ham radio group that provided emergency communications support during the outage, which also caused cancellation of his daily call-in radio program. Write to him using the form at www.coursey.com/contact.

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