Tag Archives: emergencyservices

Caltech turns eastern California fiber network into earthquake detector

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Caltech readout

Fiber optic networks do more than just ride out major earthquakes without dropping a bit. They can also detect and collect data on the quakes themselves. Two major quakes – magnitude 6.4 and 7.1 – hit eastern California on 4 and 5 July 2019 respectively, in the high desert of Kern and San Bernardino counties, where seismometers aren’t thick on the ground. To understand what happened, and what continues to happen, Caltech scientists needed to quickly get more sensors into the field.

Fortunately, the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada – Mono, Inyo, Kern and San Bernardino counties in California, and Washoe and Douglas counties and Carson City in Nevada – has fast, earthquake ready fiber connectivity.

The Digital 395 open access fiber optic network, which links Reno to Barstow along the eastern Sierra, runs right through the area that was hardest hit. By connecting “surveillance technology initially developed for military and general security applications that can detect ground movement” to a single fiber strand, an underground fiber route – or sections of it, at least – can be used for “pre-shock detection of P and S waves across the fibers”, according to Michael Ort, CEO of Praxis Associates/Inyo Networks, which built and operates Digital 395. In other words, fiber optic networks can be used detect the big incoming shockwaves a few critical seconds before they hit, as well as provide valuable scientific data about the event.

Preliminary discussions about installing distributed acoustic sensing equipment had been held with Caltech, but everything went into high gear when the quakes began hitting Ridgecrest. Zhongwen Zhan, a Caltech scientist, asked about using one of Digital 395’s strands, and got a quick yes from Ort.

He hooked up his instruments on 9 July 2019, four days after the 7.1 quake and while the ground was still shaking with aftershocks. The results were immediate, with multiple (mostly small) quakes detected every minute, beginning as soon as the equipment was turned on.

“The fiber gave them about 5,000 sample points over 10km of fiber. Before they had only a handful of sample points in the area. So you got only “discrete points” of these, not the overall picture”, Ort said.

“This first time ever use of fiber has given us many data points, making our observations more complete and natural”, said Mark Simons, JPL chief scientist and CalTech professor of geophysics. “It’s a true breakthrough that will revolutionise our perspective and help with early warning”.

Digital 395 was built with money from the 2009 federal stimulus program and from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF). It was the first and the longest of the open access middle mile fiber routes funded by CASF, before the California legislature bowed to pressure (and money) from incumbent telephone and cable companies and banned those types of projects.

California-funded fiber keeps (most) quake hit communities connected

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Digital 395 19sep2013

I planned to write about Trona and Searle Valley today, but not with earthquakes in mind. Instead, I was going to look at a recent California Public Utilities Commission ruling that, in effect, disavowed a previous and pusillanimous decision to deny broadband infrastructure grants in those two towns. That’s for later. For now, it’s about the eastern California communities that got state and federal broadband grants and, as a result, maintained modern, gigabit-class broadband connectivity even as two major earthquakes – 7.1 and 6.4 magnitude – and a continuing swarm of fore and aftershocks hit.

After chopping out Trona and Searle Valley, the CPUC approved a 2016 California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) grant for fiber-to-the-home infrastructure in three other small towns in the Ridgecrest area, Randsburg, Johannesburg and Red Mountain. Race Communications built and now runs those systems, which continued to deliver gigabit service despite this weekend’s shaking, according to chief technical officer Carlos Alcantar.

Race’s last mile service was supported by Digital 395, a 500+ mile middle mile fiber network that runs from Reno, down the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada, to Barstow, linking communities along U.S. highway 395 to major east-west fiber routes. It was also funded by grants from CASF, and from the 2009 federal stimulus program.

“The network did great, and was a critical lifeline for the hospital”, said James Suver, CEO of the Ridgecrest Regional Hospital and a Digital 395 board member.

According to Michael Ort, CEO of Praxis Associates/Inyo Networks, which built and operates Digital 395, the many public safety agencies, utilities and telecoms companies that rely on it stayed connected throughout the weekend…

We lost commercial power, but went to battery and generator in Ridgecrest. We’ve had other earthquakes, but nothing like this…

We also continued to beef up the reliability of the network as we learned about weaknesses: north-south redundancies, redundant routing up the central valley, multiple service providers feeding in and out of the network…

The fact that there was-real time international news coverage of the event (internet, TV video) is because it travelled on our network. I got a text from a friend in Paris within 10 minutes, asking if we were okay, which is a testament on how fast information travels today.

Reliable communication infrastructure and service is an absolute requirement for effective disaster response and recovery. By all accounts, emergency services in Kern and San Bernardino counties performed flawlessly this weekend. Without these two CASF-subsidised fiber projects, the story might have been different.

Update 10 July 2019: added quote from James Suver.

Rural broadband gaps are life and death issues, California wildfire study says

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Paicines pole route

Ageing, inadequate infrastructure contributed to the destruction during last year’s Camp Fire in Butte County that killed 86 people and did billions of dollars worth of damage. Congested roads were a big part of the problem, but so was a lack of telecommunications service, either because it was knocked out by the fires or, in many cases, not there in the first place, according to a report by a “strike force” commissioned by California governor Gavin Newsom…

In a matter of hours, 52,000 people from rural Paradise and surrounding communities evacuated onto roads built for a fraction of that capacity and converged on Chico, overwhelming the recovery system. The scale and speed of catastrophic, wind-driven wildfires, like the Camp Fire, incapacitate existing emergency response systems, local infrastructure and planned recovery efforts. Many California communities designed their fire emergency response and recovery systems decades ago, using old technology and outdated fire modelling. A clear overhaul of the California emergency response systems and the underlying infrastructure is needed.

The lack of broadband in rural communities and access to cell service make it difficult to communicate clear emergency evacuation orders to residents or locate residents who are in trouble.

Broadband did not play a significant role in warning residents of massive fires sweeping through California’s wine country in 2017. The North Bay/North Coast Broadband Consortium surveyed nearly 1,600 residents of the fire stricken areas. Only 11 said they received warnings from online sources: five on Facebook, four from Nextdoor.com and two via notices on public agency websites.

Phone calls – including those from from family, friends, public agencies – played a bigger role. About a third of the respondents were alerted via either mobile or landline calls.

The big problem during the wine country fires was the damage done to telecommunications infrastructure. Nearly four-fifths of the people surveyed lost mobile connectivity, either partially or completely, and two-thirds lost landline connections. Overall, 69% were cut off from the Internet for at least some of the time during the disaster.

Broadband service failed in 2017 California firestorm, mobile hit worst

by Steve Blum • , , ,

One of the big questions to answer about the mega fire still tearing through Shasta County this morning is how do you warn people? Broadband and other high tech tools failed in last year’s fires. Instead, people were saved the old fashioned way: a knock on the door or the smell of smoke.

Mobile service went down more often than any other kind of broadband service during 2017’s northern California firestorm, but cable, telco and fixed wireless systems also took a severe beating. Satellite Internet service had the highest survivability rate. That’s one conclusion drawn from a wide survey of people in and around Mendocino, Napa and Sonoma counties during an horrific wildfire in October 2017.

Mobile broadband carriers had an 88% failure rate – i.e. people “lost some to all service”. Broadband service from Comcast was down for 73% of customers, while 69% of AT&T and Frontier broadband subscribers experienced outages.

One caveat: the survey did not break AT&T subscribers out by type of service. Comparing total numbers, and also the voice telephone service data collected, it’s a fair conclusion that most of the 700 people who ticked the AT&T Internet service box are landline customers. So that’s how I categorised them, but I’m sure that some mobile customers are mixed in.

DSL resellers – companies that lease copper lines from AT&T or Frontier, add some equipment and provide semi-independent Internet access – only had a 43% failure rate. But that doesn’t mean they did better than the big guys – resellers concentrate their service in cities and towns, and most of the fire damage was in exurban and rural areas. If rural residents can’t buy the service, then they can’t lose it either.

One common problem that all the terrestrial companies in the counties have is that AT&T is pretty much the only middle mile game in town, according to the report. So if an AT&T inter-city line is damaged, all the ISPs using it suffer.

Satellite Internet service, which had a 26% failure rate, isn’t affected by AT&T’s backhaul outages. But it does share one weak link with all the others: electricity. If your power (or your provider’s) goes out and there’s no back up, you don’t have Internet service either. Smoke shouldn’t have been a problem for satellite or other wireless services – any smoke that’s thick enough to block signals is too thick to breath. No one should have been sitting at home trying to get on the Internet at that point.

The data was collected by the North Bay/North Coast Broadband Consortium. More than 3,700 people filled out an online survey. It wasn’t a scientifically selected sample, but just taken for what it is, it’s a significant number of responses.

North Bay/North Coast Broadband Consortium Telecommunications Outage Report: Northern California Firestorm 2017, released 10 May 2018.
Report Appendices, released 10 May 2018.
More information from the North Bay/North Coast Broadband Consortium.

Life and death alerts are low tech/no tech, California firestorm study shows

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Social media and other online services were not the way people received lifesaving warnings when a firestorm tore through three northern California counties last year. Nearly all were alerted to evacuate via phone or personal contact, or by their own eyes, ears and noses.

That’s a top line read of the data from a study just published by the North Bay/North Coast Broadband Consortium. They ran an online survey and 3,700 people responded, nearly all of them from the hardest hit counties of Mendocino, Napa and Sonoma. The number is significant as it stands, even if it wasn’t a scientifically selected sample.

Given that some people had “literally seconds” to leave their homes in the face of a wall of fire that moved at speeds up to 50 miles per hour, the most important question is “how did you receive warning/notice to evacuate?” About a quarter got no warning at all – they figured it out themselves – and about a third were alerted by phone calls of various kinds. Nearly a quarter got a boots-on-the-ground warning – someone banged on their door or shouted out to them. Most of the rest checked other, and closer inspection shows nearly all of those responses are also variations on phone, physical or smell-the-smoke alerts.

The Internet accounted for very few of the time-critical messages. Of the more than 1,600 evacuees who responded, only 11 credited online sources for the warning: five people mentioned Facebook, four said Nextdoor and two saw notices on public agency websites. Even in those cases, most already knew something was going on. Radio and TV – ancient compared to the Internet, but newer tech than phones or feet – were almost as insignificant.

Across those three counties, 78% of respondents said they lost “some to all” of their cellular voice and data service, while 66% reported the same for wireline phones. Just looking at Internet connectivity, of whatever sort, 69% said they lost “some to all” of it.

There’s no mystery about the cause. The fires burned countless utility poles (some argue blazes were started by electric lines mounted on those poles) and more than “340 cell sites were completely destroyed or damaged”. When infrastructure goes up in smoke, service disappears too.

The report is largely quantitative and doesn’t point any particular fingers of blame, noting “the severity of the 2017 wildfires was unpredictable”.

North Bay/North Coast Broadband Consortium Telecommunications Outage Report: Northern California Firestorm 2017, released 10 May 2018.
Report Appendices, released 10 May 2018.
More information from the North Bay/North Coast Broadband Consortium.