CenturyLink has pattern of poorly marked utilities, officials say

CenturyLink recently agreed to pay a $20,000 penalty for the alleged violations, including a October 2013 outage in Taos.

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Again? Really?

Thousands of people were without Internet and cellular telephone service last Thursday (March 12) after a crew from Kit Carson Electric Cooperative bore through a single fiber optic cable in Taos Canyon.

The fiber is a vital digital link that connects Taos with the outside world. Last week’s outage was the fifth since 2012.

“This is getting old,” said Valerie Espinoza, who represents Taos on the Public Regulation Commission.

The line was severed while the co-op crew was installing a new pole for electric service at the entrance to Valle Escondido.

Kit Carson CEO Luis Reyes told The Taos News his crew severed the line, but he claimed the co-op had followed procedures to have any buried lines identified before digging.

“It was a misspot,” Reyes said.

CenturyLink owns the fiber optic cable which runs to I-25 and serves most Internet and cell phone users in and around Taos. It took about 10 hours for CenturyLink to repair the line and restore service.

An outage report from CenturyLink sent to the Public Regulation Commission, Thursday said that more than 9,100 DSL customers were left without service. The report did not offer an estimate on the number of cell phone users left in the dark.

Previous outages have disrupted cellphone service for all providers in the area. Internet also goes down for customers of CenturyLink, Kit Carson Telecom, and DSL customers of TaosNet.

During previous outages, regulators have explained that local calls on landlines are not affected because they’re handled through a local switch. Long-distance landline calls can also be made because call traffic is diverted to a microwave that does not rely on the fiber connection.

However, cell phone signals in the Taos area are captured by towers connected to the fiber network. All cellular calls, even to other local numbers, are routed over the fiber network.

While the co-op cut the line that caused this outage, the co-op has nearly completed the construction of its own fiber network that could create a “looped” system that could still function, even if one line out of Taos is cut.

Following an outage in October 2013, commissioner Espinoza urged CenturyLink to lease space on the Kit Carson system to avoid future outage.

Emails obtained by The Taos News show CenturyLink asked Kit Carson what it would cost to use its system.

“…It is of utmost importance to CenturyLink to bolster the survivability of our data network that we currently have in place with another route out of the Taos main central office,” wrote Dennis Pappas, director of network operations for CenturyLink, in a Nov. 2013 email to Reyes.

A response was provided by Kit Carson in January 2014, but Reyes would not disclose the terms of the lease offer.

Reyes said he did not hear from Tri-State until earlier this month. Reyes said the Kit Carson system is still not complete, meaning even if a lease had been signed, the most recent cut to the existing line would still have caused the widespread outage.

Reyes said redundant lines heading south and north would likely be finished in the next two months.

Both CenturyLink and the co-op said they are in active negotiations.

At the same time, state regulators are investigating who’s at fault for last week’s blackout.

The co-op provided photos to The Taos News showing line locates near the dig site done in orange spray paint — the standard color used to mark telecommunications lines.

Reyes said the markings indicated there were no lines in the area the crew was digging. CenturyLink spokesperson Sara Spaulding said the company is “actively investigating” the incident with USIC — the company it hires to do locates — but she did not comment further.

Under state law, anyone who wants to dig a hole using machinery must first call 811 to ask that any utilities in the area be located and marked. Utilities then have two days to mark any facilities in the dig area.

If a utility like CenturyLink fails to correctly mark its lines, it is subject to penalties from state regulators.

According to Jason Montoya, bureau chief for the Pipeline Safety Bureau at the Public Regulation Commission, CenturyLink has a history of these sorts of problems.

In fact, Montoya said there have been at least 60 alleged instances across the state in which CenturyLink failed to mark, or improperly marked, its lines between October 2013 and April 2014.

Montoya said CenturyLink recently agreed to pay a $20,000 penalty for the alleged violations, including the October 2013 outage in Taos. As part of that deal, Montoya said CenturyLink is trying update its mapping to avoid incorrect locates in the future, but he said that effort was “a work in progress and will take time.”

Montoya said his office is still investigating the cause of last week’s outage.

“CenturyLink takes location services very seriously,” said CenturyLink spokesperson Spaulding in an email to The Taos News.

Spaulding did not directly respond to questions about specific steps CenturyLink is doing to improve its mapping and procedures.

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