CenturyLink outage was a wake-up call | Editorial

We are over the worst of it now, and we need to focus on the future.

There was a fair amount of anger and frustration expressed by islanders at CenturyLink’s public forum last week. There are very real health and safety concerns as well as economic consequences when our communications are interrupted.

The situation is so serious that the Washington State Utilities and Transportation Commission will be opening an investigation into the voice and data service outage.

During the session on Nov. 7, Orcas Senior Center Director Marla Johns spoke most poignantly as she described an elderly woman who was stranded on her floor for three days, unable to use her Lifeline Medical Alert because the phone lines were down.

Until the temporary fix – facilitated with help from OPALCO – was put in place, 911 was inoperable in the islands for days.

Many businesses were unable to use credit card machines and San Juan Islanders did not have internet for close to a week.

What if there had been a winter storm during the outage? A major fire? A significant medical or criminal incident?

CenturyLink representatives say the company is taking this issue very seriously and will be conducting a thorough study of how to implement a back-up plan.

But as Councilman Rick Hughes said at the meeting, this  larger than just one company and the county will be doing its own assessment.

This is a discussion that needs to be had with county personnel as well as OPALCO, which has been looking at Broadband since 1999.

This kind of outage has happened before. Fourteen years ago, the previous fiber-optic cable broke, disrupting telephone and internet communications.

Although 911 service was restored within three hours, then-county commissioner John Evans, quoted in the Nov. 3, 1999 issue of the Journal of the San Juans, said, “This is a real wake-up call. We need a back-up system. The large issue is 911. We need to be able to respond quickly. We need to look at improving the microwave link.”

Hughes is now echoing a similar sentiment. We sincerely hope the county makes headway this time.

We strongly supported OPALCO moving forward with a Broadband project, and we were very disappointed when it was scaled back after not enough membership support earlier this year. Maybe after this recent incident there will be more community backing.

Whether you agree with it or not, the reality is that we live in a time where just about everything is connected to technology. We must have additional resources in place for this kind of emergency.