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Snow, ice disrupts cell phone, Internet service in region

by Canda HarbaughWestern News
| January 12, 2009 11:00 PM

Snow and ice severed a fiber-optic cable southeast of Libby last Wednesday night to create over two days of sporadic cell phone and Internet service for customers in northwestern Montana.

Bonneville Power Administration crews were able to restore the fiber-optic cable, located in the Silver Butte area south of Highway 2 and 30 miles southeast of Libby, by Friday night, BPA spokesperson Doug Johnson said.

The fiber-optic line provides Internet and is leased out for other uses, as well, such as a landline that connects cellular phone towers. When the line was damaged, several cell phone towers in northwest Montana went out of service, according to Wesley Brown, an Alltel corporate spokesperson.

“The towers themselves are connected to landline,” Brown said. “When their fiber optic (line) was cut, it knocked out 13 towers.”

Because cell phone companies share towers, it affected subscribers from all providers, Brown said. With 13 towers out, phone traffic had to be re-routed, causing some people to get an “all circuits are busy” message when dialing out.

“Our network folks try to re-route the traffic on to other towers so that customers’ service won’t be affected,” Brown said. “It affected some outgoing calls of our customers.”

All of the towers were back up-and-running by Saturday morning, according to Brown.

Though the major fiber-optic cable break was fixed by Friday night, BPA crews continued repairing parts of the line over the weekend. Fully repairing the damage proved to be a difficult task as harsh weather and mountainous terrain only allowed crews to reach the site by snowmobile, Johnson said.

Because Internet and cell phone service can be rerouted to other fiber optic lines or other towers, respectively, Brown and Johnson couldn’t speculate how many people had been affected.

“Some businesses that lease the lines have redundant paths,” Johnson said. “So, some customers should be OK because they’re using fiber optics from somewhere else.”