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Questions Grow Over CenturyLink’s Massive 2-Day December Outage

Phillip Dampier January 22, 2019 CenturyLink, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't, Video 1 Comment

What do an emergency operations center in Cochise County, Ariz., Colorado hospitals, the Idaho Bureau of Corrections, and many 911 call centers across Massachusetts have in common? They were all brought down by a two-day nationwide CenturyLink outage from Dec. 27-28 that also resulted in internet outages for tens of thousands of CenturyLink’s residential customers. The cause? CenturyLink blamed a single, faulty third-party network management card in Denver for disrupting services for CenturyLink and other phone companies, notably Verizon, from Alaska to Florida.

Hours after outage began, two days after Christmas, CenturyLink issued a general statement:

“CenturyLink experienced a network event on one of our six transport networks beginning on December 27 that impacted voice, IP, and transport services for some of our customers. The event also impacted CenturyLink’s visibility into our network management system, impairing our ability to troubleshoot and prolonging the duration of the outage.”

That “network event” caused serious disruptions to critical services in 37 states, including 911, according to Brian Kyes, president of the Massachusetts Major City Chiefs of Police Association.

“This is affecting 911 (wireline & wireless) delivery to most of Massachusetts,” Kyes said in a statement during the outage to the Boston Herald. “We have heard from MEMA that this issue may also affect some landlines but I have not heard of any specific situations or communities that have been impacted. We are advising all police and fire chiefs to test their local 911 systems and notify their residents of potential issues by reverse 911, social media or any other means that they have at their disposal. The interruption in service may depend on a particular phone carrier and the information that we have is that it may be intermittent.”

CenturyLink outages on Dec. 27, 2018. (Image: Downdetector.com)

The disruptions affected much of Massachusetts — a state served primarily by Verizon Communications, because CenturyLink is a major commercial services vendor inside and outside of its local landline service areas and supplies some connectivity services to Verizon, mostly for wireless customers.

ATM networks also went down in certain parts of the country. CenturyLink is one of many vendors providing data connectivity between the cashpoint machines and several banking institutions.

Also impacted, the Idaho Department of Corrections, including inmate phone systems, and the Idaho Department of Education, which lost the ability to make or receive calls.

Consumers also noticed their internet connections were often down or sporadic in some locations, primarily because CenturyLink’s backbone network became saturated with rogue packets.

The Denver Post presented a more detailed technical explanation about the outage:

CenturyLink said the [defective] card was propagating “invalid frame packets” that were sent out over its secondary network, which controlled the flow of data traffic.

“Once on the secondary communication channel, the invalid frame packets multiplied, forming loops and replicating high volumes of traffic across the network, which congested controller card CPUs (central processing unit) network-wide, causing functionality issues and rendering many nodes unreachable,” the company said in a statement.

Once the syndrome gets going, it can be difficult to trace back to its original source and to stop, a big reason networks are designed to isolate failures early and contain them.

“We have learned through experience about these different types of failure modes. We build our systems to try and localize those failures,” said Craig Partridge, chair of the computer science department at Colorado State University in Fort Collins and a member of the Internet Hall of Fame. “I would hope that what is going on is that CenturyLink is trying to understand why a relatively well-known failure mode has bit them.”

The Federal Communications Commission also expects answers to some questions, opening another investigation of the phone company. In 2015, CenturyLink agreed to pay a $16 million settlement to the federal agency after a seven-state outage in April 2014.

Pai

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said the agency would once again take a look at CenturyLink, focusing on disruptions to emergency services.

“When an emergency strikes, it’s critical that Americans are able to use 911 to reach those who can help,” Pai said in a statement. “This inquiry will include an examination of the effect that CenturyLink’s outage appears to have had on other providers’ 911 services.”

A retired manager at Qwest, a former Baby Bell now owned by CenturyLink, strongly criticized CenturyLink’s lack of communications with customers and an apparent lack of network redundancy.

“For a company in the communication business, they sure failed on this,” said Albuquerque resident Sam Martin. “I participated on the Qwest Disaster Recovery teams, and I do not recall ever having the network down for this kind of time and certainly never the 911 network. The 911 network should never have been down. The lack of this network can contribute to delays in rescue and fire saving lives.”

Martin is dubious about CenturyLink’s explanation for the network outage, suggesting a defective network card may be only a part of the problem.

“The explanations given so far are not valid,” Martin said. “The public may not be aware of it, but the communication network has redundancy and for essential services like inter-office trunking and 911 calls, there are duplicate fiber optic feeds – “rings” that duplicate the main circuit in another path – and switching equipment to these locations so that they may be switched electronically and automatically upon failure to a back-up network ring. When these systems are operating properly, the customer is unaware a failure occurred. If the automatic switching does not take place, employees involved with disaster recovery can intervene and manually switch the affected network to another fiber ring or electronic hub and service is restored until the actual damage is fixed.”

None of those things appeared to happen in this case, and the outage persisted for 48 hours before all services were restored.

“CenturyLink has to have a disaster recovery plan with redundancies in place for electrical, inbound and outbound local and toll-free carriers, as well as network and hardware component redundancies. CenturyLink should be able to switch between multiple fiber optic rings or central offices in case entire networks of phones go down. They would then locate and repair, or replace, defective telecommunication components without the customer ever knowing. The fact that this did not happen is discouraging and scary for the consumer. The fact that it happened nationwide is even more surprising and disturbing. Hopefully the truth will come out soon.”

A critical editorial in the Albuquerque Journal added:

We need answers from CenturyLink beyond the cryptic “a network element” caused the outage. We need to know how many CenturyLink and Verizon customers were affected. And we need to know what they – and other internet and phone providers – are doing to prevent similar outages or worse from happening in the future. Because if the outage showed nothing else, it’s that like an old-time string of Christmas lights, we are living in an interconnected world.

And when one light goes out, they can all go out.

KTVB in Boise, Idaho reported on CenturyLink’s massive outage on Dec. 27-28 and how it impacted local businesses and government services. (3:09)

Windstream Relying on Government Funding to Double 100 Mbps Availability in 2019

Windstream is relying on the Federal Communications Commission’s Connect America Fund to double the areas where it will offer 100 Mbps broadband service, expected to reach 30% of the company’s 18-state local service area by the end of the first quarter of 2019.

“Windstream understands that premium internet speeds are critical to families and businesses in rural America, and we are systematically enhancing our network to meet that urgent demand,” said Jeff Small, president of consumer and small and medium-sized business services. “Network upgrades are expensive, especially in rural areas where there are relatively few customers, so Windstream is using a combination of its own capital and crucial support from the FCC’s Connect America Fund to make faster speeds more widely available. Without support from the Connect America Fund, many of these projects simply would not be economically feasible.”

Thomas told attendees at the Citi 2019 TMT West Conference Windstream’s legacy copper wire telephone network is not up to the job of handling the kinds of internet speeds more modern technologies can manage.

In urban and larger service areas, Windstream is most likely to deploy fiber to the home service in new housing developments and select gentrified neighborhoods where a business case exists to invest in fiber upgrades. The company also typically replaces its copper wireline infrastructure with fiber where road construction projects or damage forces the company to replace or relocate its lines. Suburban and more densely populated rural areas are likely to receive an upgraded version of Windstream’s DSL service that can manage up to 50 or 100 Mbps. In Windstream’s significant rural service area, the phone company is increasingly turning to fixed wireless technology, especially in flat midwestern states like Nebraska and Iowa where it plans to offer a combination of 3.5 GHz “CBRS” and 5G millimeter wave fixed wireless broadband capable of delivering up to 1,000 Mbps.

Windstream’s service area

“[We are deploying wireless internet] probably at a larger scale than a lot of the larger wireless companies,” Thomas said, especially in flatter areas where wireless signals go a long way.

Because most current broadband expansion fund programs require companies to commit to at least 25/3 Mbps service, simply expanding basic ADSL technology has proven inadequate to meet the government’s speed requirements. But wiring fiber to the home service to get faster speeds in rural areas does not meet the Return On Investment requirements Windstream’s shareholders demand. Windstream claims fixed wireless can solve both problems.

“You can get 100 Mbps out there very cost-effectively,” Thomas claimed. “You are really blowing away copper infrastructure and making it irrelevant because you’re embracing this 100 Mbps technology.”

As of early 2019, Windstream claims that 60% of its customers can get at least 25 Mbps service, 40% can receive at least 50 Mbps service. By the end of March, 30% will be able to receive 100 Mbps service.

 

A satisfied Windstream customer talks about his upgrade to 50/8 Mbps, which replaces his old 6 Mbps DSL service. (6:03)

Conservative Business Group Sues to Toss Pro-Consumer Time Warner/Charter Merger Conditions

A corporate-funded business advocacy group backed by the telecom industry and the Koch Brothers is pursuing a lawsuit asking the D.C. Court of Appeals to toss pro-consumer deal conditions imposed by the Federal Communications Commission in return for granting its 2016 approval of the acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks by Charter Communications.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute filed an initial petition with the FCC asking the agency to rescind its own deal conditions shortly after the merger was completed. CEI argued the agency imposed “harmful merger conditions on Charter that had nothing to do with the merger itself,” and that the FCC did not have the authority to put corporate merger deal conditions in place.

CEI specifically targeted its objections to the FCC’s seven-year ban on Charter Spectrum data caps and consumption billing, arguing the ban raised broadband pricing for all Spectrum customers and prevented the cable company from offering discounts to low usage customers. It also claimed that Charter had to increase pricing for all customers because the FCC required Spectrum to raise broadband speeds, introduce a discounted internet program for low-income customers, and expand service to at least two million new households not presently served by Spectrum.

The FCC ultimately rejected CEI’s petition in 2018, claiming the group had no standing to challenge the merger transaction or deal conditions. The group called the FCC’s decision wrong, claiming consumers will “have to foot the bill for an overreaching federal agency” and that “the FCC has no authority to micromanage the internet at the public’s expense.”

This week, it filed an opening brief appealing the FCC’s decision to the D.C. Court of Appeals, which oversees the legality of the FCC’s regulatory decisions.

The 101-page filing maintains the FCC overreached by imposing any deal conditions on the 2016 multi-billion dollar merger deal, especially those that might require the merged company to spend money to improve service to customers. CEI argued such conditions were “arbitrary and capricious” and had no place as part of approving a business merger transaction.

The group submitted evidence from four individuals who attested to their belief that the deal conditions “probably contributed” to price increases after customers abandoned their legacy Bright House and Time Warner Cable plans in favor of Spectrum plans and pricing. The customers reported rate hikes ranging from $4 a month to $20 a month “for the same services,” but did not attach copies of their bills allowing a court to ascertain whether those rate increases involved cable television or broadband service or both.

No evidence was provided to prove CEI’s assertion that rate increases were directly tied to merger conditions other than a declaration from Robert W. Crandall, an economist and nonresident senior fellow at the Technology Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. Crandall argued any deal conditions requiring a cable company to spend money to expand, improve, or discount services would likely impact subscriber rates.

No disclosure was made regarding any fees paid to Crandall to conduct research on behalf of CEI. The Technology Policy Institute is financially backed almost entirely by the Koch Brothers and corporate interests including AT&T, Charter Communications, Comcast, and Verizon.

CEI’s legal brief depends on assertions made by then-minority Republican members of the FCC, notably then-Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly, who objected to the FCC’s merger conditions. CEI ignored the views of the then-Democratic majority on the Commission, who voted to approve the merger with deal conditions. Then Chairman Thomas Wheeler and Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel were not mentioned anywhere in CEI’s brief. Today the Commission has a Republican majority, with Pai now serving as chairman.

The FCC in 2016 (from left to right): Commissioners Ajit Pai, Mignon Clyburn, Chairman Tom Wheeler, and Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Michael O’Rielly

CEI’s argument follows a similar pattern to arguments made against net neutrality — namely, the FCC has no authority to regulate broadband services or the pricing and policies of the companies providing it. Charter Communications has occasionally argued the same point with the New York State Public Service Commission, which imposed deal conditions of its own in return for approval of the merger.

Charter has consistently reserved the right to object to deal conditions requiring it to build out service to rural areas, as well as any deal conditions that go beyond the authority of state regulators to oversee broadband service. In Charter’s view, state regulators have no such authority. In the state’s view, the PSC has the right to consider a myriad of factors because its regulatory mandate  requires approving or rejecting a merger based on the public interest. Its 2016 merger order found the transaction was not in the public interest unless the parties agreed to certain deal conditions, which closely resembled those required by the FCC. When Charter allegedly failed to meet the conditions it agreed to, the New York regulator could not directly compel Charter Spectrum into compliance, but it could and did decertify the merger itself.

Should the D.C. Court of Appeals find in favor of CEI, the deal conditions imposed by the FCC would be revoked, although Charter could continue to honor those conditions voluntarily. Separate legal cases would have to be brought in state courts to invalidate deal conditions imposed by state regulators.

FCC Tells Lobbyists to Just Say What Their Corporate Clients Want

Phillip Dampier November 15, 2018 Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

Stockdale

The Federal Communications Commission wants the scores of lobbyists that visit with agency staffers regularly to get to the point of exactly what they want the FCC to do on behalf of their corporate clients instead of delivering long-winded presentations that often run overtime and cause lobbyists to back up at FCC headquarters.

FCC Bureau Chief Donald Stockdale sent that clear message at a Federal Communications Bar Association event on Wednesday, telling attendees that too many lobbyists are burying the FCC staff in jargon and long, confusing presentations that explain the client’s business but do not clearly state what their client expects of the FCC. He wants lobbyists to plainly state their client’s desired policy goals within the first 2-3 minutes of a meeting with agency staffers.

Stockdale also complained too many lobbyists are overrunning their assigned 30-minute time slots, creating problems for everyone. He noted a recent presentation where a lobbyist spent 30 minutes discussing his corporate client’s business model, but only revealed the true reason he was there — to lobby for policy changes — at the end of the meeting after time ran out.

To assist the FCC in the era of the Trump Administration, the Commission’s staff advised lobbyists to create a simple-to-follow guide showing the FCC exactly what steps should be taken to achieve the corporate client’s policy goal. Currently, many lobbyists only specify a goal and do not include a roadmap showing the Commission how to meet those goals.

FCC Proposes Another Grand Giveaway of Public Rights-of-Way to Cable Operators

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has proposed a new policy allowing cable companies to deduct the fair market value of their obligations to serve the public interest from franchise fee payments to towns and cities.

The proposal, MB Docket No. 05-311 — Cable Franchise Fee Deduction, will turn cable franchise laws upside down in virtually every state, reducing local government revenue and threatening public, educational, and government (PEG) access channels, access to cable in schools and other educational institutions, and undermining local control over the placement of wireless cell equipment and other infrastructure that some cable operators propose to install.

Critics of the proposal claim it would continue a concerted effort to shift oversight and regulatory controls away from local communities and states to a federal government that currently has a policy of favoring the interests of telecommunications companies over the interests of community leaders and the public.

Concord, Calif. Mayor Edi Birsan warned the FCC that if it adopts its proposal, it would strip his city, along with others, of its ability to manage where cable companies place cellular equipment and at what price.

Birsan

“Local governments may lose their authority to manage a cable company’s deployment of non-cable facilities, such as ‘small cells,’ Birsan wrote in a letter to the FCC. “This preemption would threaten to extend to fees for use of the rights of way, meaning:

  • Cable companies can use local rights of way for any purpose, regardless of the terms of the franchise, and avoid having to pay fair compensation to the local government for the use of publicly funded assets in the rights of way.
  • Cable companies could potentially install “small wireless facilities” with little to no public input, without having to meet any aesthetic or equipment size requirements aimed to mitigate blight and preserve community character.
  • Cable companies would gain a significant advantage against their competitors, including telecommunications providers even though the FCC has just adopted an order lowering their deployment standards, resulting in a race-to-the-bottom deployment strategy for both cable and telecommunications companies.”

Officials in King County, Wash., which includes the city of Seattle, were critical and suspicious of the FCC’s argument that the burdens of providing benefits to communities as defined in franchise agreements are slowing down the deployment of broadband services, a claim Tanya Hannah, chief information officer of the Department of Information Technology and Christina R. Jaramillo, manager of the Office of Cable Communications found had little merit and no evidence to back it.

Hannah

“It is not obvious that if a cable operator’s profit increases by one dollar that the operator will invest an additional dollar in broadband infrastructure deployment,” they wrote in a joint letter to the FCC. “Many cable companies are functional monopolies. Because the data transfer speed of fiber-line cable systems significantly exceeds the speed of wireless systems, cable broadband is the preferred broadband service if the prices for other broadband services are comparable.”

The two officials made it clear that since the FCC was proposing to impose these changes retroactively on town and cities around the country, the result would be detrimental to local government finances.

“If the FCC were to allow the value of the proposed franchise fee offset activities that were done in the past to be deducted from current or future franchise fee payments, the results to local  governments would be debilitating,” the officials wrote. “It could essentially end all monetary fee payments to King County by Comcast and WAVE Broadband for a number of years. This is not a feasible option. It is not realistic and it is not fair.”

The Alabama League of Municipalities told the FCC the issue was about basic state sovereignty, and Alabama does not want the federal government to run its affairs.

“Section 220 of the Alabama Constitution of 1901 provides that no person, firm, association, or corporation shall be authorized or permitted to use the streets, avenues, alleys, or public places of any city, town, or village for the construction or operation of any public utility or private enterprise without first obtaining the consent of the proper authorities of such city, town, or village,” the League wrote. “The Supreme Court of Alabama has labeled this grant of authority as ‘an essential and sovereign power in local authorities […] in the nature of a bill of rights [that] recognize certain fixed constitutional rights which shall not be invaded.'”

Under the FCC’s proposal, Alabama’s Constitution would be violated by allowing cable operators near carte-blanche access to public rights-of-way without fair compensation or permission, the League argued.

For a lot of communities, any reduction in franchise fee payments will lead to a corresponding decrease in funding for PEG television services.

“Our town’s ability to invest and support its public access television unit and the telecommunications curriculum in our schools is directly linked to the funding received from Charter Communications as part of the franchise fee (“cable tax”) agreement,” noted Robert J. Oliveira, chairperson of the Westport, Mass. Cable Advisory Board. “Any reduction in these funds would mandate a corresponding reduction in programming levels and information access to the community and curriculum support to our students.”

Public comments are due to the FCC by the end of today — Wednesday, Nov. 14. Consumers can share their opinions by visiting the docket on the FCC’s website, and then selecting + Express on the left hand side of the page, which will open an online comment form. Municipalities can file formal submissions using the + New Filing link.

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