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Nevada Phone Outage Highlights Need for Redundancy


TMCnews Featured Article

February 20, 2013

Nevada Phone Outage Highlights Need for Redundancy

By Mae Kowalke, TMCnet Contributor

Reno had a Battlestar Galactica moment on February 11.

No, they weren’t invaded by Cylons. But they did lose their phone service, including access to 911 services. An outage in AT&T’s (News - Alert) Northern Nevada network took down internet, landline and cellular service from Reno to Ely.

For many, the outage lasted from Monday afternoon on Feb 11 until Tuesday night the next day, reported

What made the outage eerily similar to the television show Battlestar Galactica was that the outage showed how delicate the modern telephone network can be. The cause of the outage, according to AT&T, was a “software problem.” And while this software problem did not make the entire country defenseless like on the television show, it did take down critical infrastructure for a wide swath of Northern Nevada.

Officials from the counties hit by the outage were quick to note that their 911 systems remained in full operation throughout the outage—but callers could not connect to the answering points because of the AT&T software glitch, according to Washoe County dispatch handled emergency medical calls that couldn’t be transferred to medical services.

Businesses were affected by the outage, too, including medical services. The article reported that medical practices struggled with the outage.

“They are required to keep electronic medical records,” reported a network services company as having said, “and a lot of those records are in the cloud,” accessible only by computer. Many medical practices handle appointments through the internet these days, too.

Combined with 911 services being downed, the outage “raises serious questions beyond those asked by their customers that AT&T and other communications providers must answer,” noted the article.

This highlights the need for appropriate backup systems and redundancy that make no system in the chain one “software problem” away from taking down critical infrastructure. When the network works, we expand our expectations. But sometimes our expectations make us forget how tenuous the system can be in moments of failure.

“When implementing E911 in one’s network, it’s essential to make sure that everything is correct and up-to-date,” noted TMCnet reporter Robbie Pleasant in a recent article. “Regular tests are vital, as is proper planning. Even a minor glitch can cause big problems, so it’s important to protect against human error as much as technical.”

But is that enough?

“Many businesses have backup networks in case one network goes out. Why was a single software failure able to shut down all of AT&T services over such a large geographic area without some kind of alternative available to bypass the affected computers,” wrote, understandably. “What can be done to ensure that such a system is in place the next time a major communications provider has a problem?”

The telecommunications industry and E911 must grapple with this question because while a little television outage is acceptable, the total loss of phone services, especially emergency services, is not.

Edited by Rich Steeves

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