When communications go down, communications companies fail to communicate

28 February 2014 by Steve Blum
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No one picked up the phone until a bullet hit a PG&E transformer.

More than ten months on, the motive and people behind fiber cuts and gun shots south of San Jose last year are still a mystery, according to a briefing given to the California Public Utilities Commission yesterday. The incident happened on 16 April 2013, knocking out Internet service to thousands of AT&T customers. A PG&E substation was also damaged, although no power outages resulted.

Ray Fugere, from the CPUC’s safety and enforcement division, described the timeline of the attack. It began at 12:58 a.m., when an AT&T fiber line that runs along the railroad tracks that pass by the substation was cut. Nine minutes later at 1:07 a.m., a second line belonging to Level 3 was also severed. Fugere gave few details about those cuts, except that at the time, neither AT&T or Level 3 knew exactly where or what the problem was. All they could tell was that they had lost connectivity, so they didn’t call the cops or let anyone else know that something was wrong.

Half an hour later, though, someone started shooting at PG&E’s Metcalf substation, setting off a fence alarm and puncturing an oil-filled transformer. PG&E staff called 911, and ten minutes later a unit from the Santa Clara County sheriff’s office arrived on the scene. The fiber cuts and the shooting are believed to be related and the FBI is continuing to investigate.

Most of the presentation and subsequent discussion concerned how to improve security at critical energy facilities, but the telecoms companies involved were chided for their silence. Commissioner Katherine Sandoval pointed to a general “failure of imagination” and lack of coordination by utility companies as something that needs to be pursued, a conversation, she said, she’s looking forward to having.