The Viridian Design Movement

Viridian Note 00425: Hurricanes Versus Phones

Key concepts
communications networks, Wexelblat disasters, business practice


A pdf handbook of newfangled materials for architects. Awesome.

Congratulations on birth and a year's bold survival in a changing world, Worldchanging.

Furniture designers subsuming teched-out materials via handicraft. Man, that stuff is so wack it's not even "vintage modern.".

David Bergman's furniture list has always been the most trafficked item on the viridiandesign website.

David Bergman remarks:
"I'm now teaching sustainable design in three departments at Parsons, have set up a traveling 'Crash Course' to teach design instructors the basics of and how to incorporate ecodesign into their courses, and am coming out with two (fabulous, in my opinion) new lighting series that will be kewl AND Energy Star rated. And I've got a small file here of additions for the Viridian furniture list. I've got to check them out."

Too bad the Russians had to wait till their permafrost melted. Still, that's a significant gesture, if only because it makes America's parochial regime look even weirder.

Peter Grant, Wall Street Journal, September 17, 02004

"Storms Cause Greater Outages In New Fiber-Optic Networks As BellSouth Races to Recover

"By Peter Grant
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL September 17, 2004; Page B1


CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Ron Royster stepped out yesterday for only a few minutes from BellSouth Corp.'s command center here, where technicians closely monitor the havoc Hurricane Ivan is wreaking on its phone network. But as soon as Mr. Royster, the center's director, returned, he could tell conditions had deteriorated.

((("Conditions Are Deteriorating." The climate-change motto. Could be a cafe-press sweatshirt.)))

"It was midmorning. Until then, Ivan's impact had been manageable. But an alarm in the Network Reliability Center indicated a fire may have erupted at a central phone office in Marion, Ala. Another office reported that its backup electrical generator had stopped working, forcing it to go on batteries. Most worrisome, the storm had severed fiber-optic lines – the lifeline of modern communications networks – in Pensacola, Fla., and on the Alabama-Mississippi state line.

"'Things went downhill pretty fast,' said Mr. Royster, who hasn't had a day off since Aug. 29 as the Southeast has been pounded by three back-to-back hurricanes. (((I wonder if Mr. Royster's had a day off since.)))

"It was round one in Ivan vs. BellSouth, which provides local phone service to tens of millions of people in nine Southeastern states – all in Ivan's path. And it isn't exactly a fair fight. BellSouth's disaster-recovery resources already have been stretched thin by the two hurricanes that hit Florida, Charley and Frances.

(((This WSJ report was written before Jeanne arrived.))) Link:!NEWSROOM/hurricane/jeannegallery.htm

"Furthermore, because of fiber optics and other new technologies BellSouth has added to upgrade its networks over the past decade, the systems are, ironically, more vulnerable to disasters. (((Only the Wall Street Journal considers it "ironic" that extensive investment in delicate machinery leads to bigger losses.)))

"The key problem: Many phone networks that used to rely on their own electricity now depend partly on commercial power. That means that when the utility company's power lines go down, the phones may go down, too. (((That was clever.... Are you listening, Californians? Imagine a series of market-rigged brownouts that make your phones and net collapse as well as your air conditioning.)))

(((And since the utilities and phone companies use fossil fuels, this Wall Street tale officially qualifies as a "Wexelblat disaster!")))

The first mention of the now-legendary phenomenon of "Wexelblat Disaster."

"Like other regional Bell companies, BellSouth prides itself on its ability to maintain service during disasters and restore it quickly when it fails. Phone executives love to tell stories of the numerous times that people have been able to use their telephones during power failures.

"These stories are about more than bragging rights. In today's fiercely competitive (((why does the WSJ believe this?))) telecommunications market, dealing with adversity is a major selling point. Phone companies have been quick to point out that many of the new phone services offered by some cable companies and others using Internet technology often go out in power outages. Now, with their new local fiber networks, phone companies are more vulnerable on this score.

"To improve reliability, (((yeah sure))) BellSouth in 1995 consolidated 42 recovery facilities into two, one in Charlotte and the other in Nashville. (((I don't suppose this had much to do with reducing employee headcount.))) The recent spate of hurricanes has put those centers through their toughest test yet.


"Phone companies had unparalleled reliability records when their networks consisted of copper wires that stretched from central offices to homes and workplaces with nothing in between. The copper lines not only carry calls but low-voltage electrical power as well.

"That is why phones generally have continued to work even when the local power company's lines went out. In addition, the central offices have their own backup power supplies that kick in during power outages. As a result, most service failures have been due to lines that were downed by fallen trees or car accidents.

"But in the past decade, phone companies added fiber optics and devices known as 'digital loop carriers,' small file-cabinet-sized pieces of equipment, between central offices and homes. The devices have greatly boosted the capacity of the lines, cutting costs and making new services including high-speed Internet connections possible.

"The digital-loop devices also run on electricity from the local power company's network, however. (((Uh-oh.))) While they are equipped with batteries, that backup lasts only about eight hours – (((Get some solar PV and trickle those batteries up, for heaven's sake))) and less if there's a lot of Internet traffic over the network. (((Like during massive weather havoc, for instance.)))

"Once the batteries run out, phone and Internet service goes dead (((whoopee))) unless a backup generator can be installed. (((Bring plenty of diesel.))) While some digital-loop carriers have a generator, BellSouth says it would be economically unfeasible to put a generator at all 65,000 of them. ((("Solar?" This is Florida! We never heard of sunshine!")))

"BellSouth officials say they are exploring ways to make the batteries last longer. 'We constantly look for technological advances that would allow us to have a better safety margin,' says Richard Burns, the vice president responsible for BellSouth's network-operations support. 'But it's only in these huge, widespread natural disasters that commercial power failures last long enough, and are widespread enough, to have a significant impact." (((In other words, you can destroy a power generator for whatever reason, and instantly deprive a stricken region of power, phone, and Net access all at once.))) "Initially, Hurricane Frances knocked out phone service for 775,000 BellSouth subscribers – 13% of its Florida customer base. Most of that was due to (((Oh for heaven's sake.))) power losses, not from downed lines.

"By contrast, only 350,000 customers lost service at the height of Hurricane Andrew in 1992, before many of the BellSouth networks were upgraded. A large part of the difference is because Andrew hit only two counties, while Frances hit all of BellSouth's Florida operations. But Frances's larger impact also was due to the system's new susceptibility to power outages, BellSouth executives say. "Wireless phone service was also affected. (((Figures.))) While cellphone towers are built to withstand hurricane-force winds – and most did – they use power to transmit their signals. And in areas where the power went out, the towers' backup power, a combination of generators and batteries, also sometimes failed.

(((Sounds like a textbook example of "brittle power."))) Link:

"In Mobile, Ala., 38% of Cingular Wireless's coverage area lost service, in Biloxi, Miss., 32% lost service, while in Birmingham, Ala., about 23% lost service, says Calie Shackleford, a Cingular spokeswoman. Cingular is owned by BellSouth and SBC Communications Corp.

"Power was very much on the minds of the 50 or so technicians who manned the BellSouth disaster recovery center in Charlotte yesterday. They watched as the number of central offices on backup generators climbed to 118 at midafternoon, from 63 at about noon. Even more worrisome were those that were relying on batteries, meaning their generators had failed and they had about eight hours of juice left. If one died, thousands of homes and offices would lose their phone service.

(((It's a breathless High Mass of technological decline.)))

"Fortunately, all the central offices that switched to batteries did so for only a few minutes while generators were refueled. (...)

"But other problems erupted. On other screens technicians monitored the number of digital-loop carriers that were on batteries and the number that had failed, meaning their batteries had died. By midafternoon, 397 had failed and 1,193 were running on batteries. Each one conducts service to as many as 500 households. The ones that fail won't be fixed until the commercial power goes back on or crews attach backup generators.

"As Ivan moved north, BellSouth officials moved forward quickly with their recovery plan for areas hit first. A fleet of trucks with 600 emergency generators that had been parked

at a staging area south of Valdosta, Ga., began to move out. By noon, 11 tankers with diesel and unleaded gas – to fuel the generators and repair trucks – were rolling from Jasper, Fla., to three sites in Alabama. By midafternoon, 114 digital-loop carriers were working on generators. "As of late afternoon yesterday, 350,600 customers had lost their phone service due to Hurricane Ivan – most of that due to the loss of local power."


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