Telecommunications disruptions over the weekend left parts of rural Northeast Arizona without Internet or phone connections, knocked out credit card processors, and in some cases, easy access to emergency services.
The outage caused by the demolition of the Frontier Communications fiber line has caused local authorities in Navajo and Apache counties to have problems that keep people out of contact and potentially unsafe.
“You go from 2022 to the 1800s,” said Lance Spivey, the police chief in St. John’s, a small town near the New Mexico border that lost service.
A Frontier spokesman said the company worked to restore service as soon as possible.
The ordeal began around 3pm on Saturday, when someone shot a vital fiber line at three locations across 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) near Woodruff in Navajo County. The outage knocked out the Internet and cellphones that use Frontier infrastructure in most areas. Service resumed intermittently until fully restored Monday, Spivey said.
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The outage caused many people to temporarily stay out of contact. If first responders had to be called to the service, their radios would be kept at home, Spive said.
Spivey said St. John’s and other rural communities have long struggled with communication failures that he blames Frontier. He has asked state regulators in the Arizona Corporation Commission to take action that could lead to sanctions against the company. The company agreed in March to take various steps to improve reliability after the commission ruled that 911 services in the border region would be closed for a total of 66 hours in the year ending April 2021.
“It’s just sad that Frontier will put dollar signs in front of people’s lives and endanger police, fire and EMS personnel, ambulance personnel, paramedics,” Spive said. “We swear and we live up to that oath to protect our community, and when our spouse has an important element and it doesn’t last, we lose a good night’s sleep.”
Customers lost 911 access for just 1 hour 3 minutes on Sunday while staff were repairing a broken line, Frontier spokeswoman Chrissie Murray said. But she said other service providers, such as cellphone companies, have long outages.
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“We have a long-standing commitment to providing this critical infrastructure to St. John’s,” Murray said. She said the company has “offered to discuss network redundancy” with regulators and industry to improve credibility.
The company is offering a 10,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of the person who shot the lines, she said.
Chief Deputy Brian Swanti said the Navajo County Sheriff’s Office used two dedicated cellphones to field 911 and 911 non-emergency calls, along with radio links to other 911 centers. It restricts senders to one 911 call at a time and shuts down services such as call recording and caller geolocation, he said.
On the first day of the outage, Navajo County senders made at least 60 calls from people for welfare checks when they could not catch their loved ones, Sheriff David Claus said.
Employees operating the Coronado generating station struggled to reach out to on-call experts when the coal-fired power plant experienced “normal equipment failure” on Saturday, said Erica Rolfs, a spokeswoman for the Salt River project that runs the plant.
“We were able to fix this problem relatively quickly, however, if we had the communication facility, the equipment repair process would have been faster and smoother,” Roelfs said.
Breona Ellington said the lack of phone service had already created a tense situation on Sunday when her 5-year-old daughter was injured while playing. She drove for half an hour to a nearby hospital, where she waited four hours for staff to find out how to get in touch with Phoenix Children’s Hospital and see if a pediatric medical center could treat the injuries.
With the Internet off, gas stations are unable to accept credit card payments. Fortunately, she said, her husband had the money to buy gas for a four-hour drive to Phoenix.
“It’s scary, and it shouldn’t be a problem we have,” Ellington said. “It shouldn’t happen. I hope they fix it. I’m glad my little girl is OK. I hope they fix it so it doesn’t happen to any other parents who aren’t lucky enough to fix it.” “
Democrat Tom O’Haleran, representing the region, called on the Federal Communications Commission to investigate.
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The agency has received the letter and is reviewing it but does not disclose whether specific cases are being investigated, spokeswoman Katie Gorsak said.
“However, the Commission under President Rosenworcel is particularly focused on investigating and enforcing violations of our 911 and Outage Reporting Rules,” Gorsk said.