COUNTY NEWS RELEASE
The Los Alamos community experienced a communication blackout on Sunday, Dec. 11, 2022. Residents and businesses alike were without cellular phone service and internet after fiber optic lines, owned by the telecommunication company Lumen Technology, failed between Los Alamos and Santa Fe. It took Lumen crews over 26 hours to locate and repair the two problem areas. Because our community internet providers, such as LA Network, Comcast, and Verizon, all rely on Lumen’s fiber for service, the resulting outage was widespread.
“We understand that individuals were frustrated with the lack of information during the outage,” sympathized County Manager Steven Lynne. During the outage, information coming into county employees was minimal, and at the same time, getting information out to the public was equally challenging.
The good news, according to Lynne, was that the emergency 9-1-1 phone system remained fully functional since it operates on analog copper lines. Citizens using landlines, and those lucky few who could get intermittent cell service on their smartphones, were able to reach police dispatch operators through 9-1-1. Additionally, neither police nor fire operations were impeded by the outage, as emergency responders continued communications via radio.
Since the incident, county employees have been revising the communication appendix of the Emergency Operations Plan should such an event occur again. This includes identifying how staff can communicate with each other, and how they can provide updates to the community in a timely fashion despite the obstacles of nonfunctioning internet or cell phone services.
The precise geographic location of a malfunction directly affects the scope and nature of the outages in Los Alamos, and will dictate the workable solutions that are available to county staff in providing better communications to the public, as well as identifying alternate locations for access to viable Wi-Fi. This is especially true if the equipment is owned by a private company for which the county has no jurisdiction, as was the case during the December outage.
As an example, while the county government (a subscriber to Lumen) also lost internet, the county-owned facilities were able to maintain public Wi-Fi, thanks to the RediNet wireless microwave link, which takes a different physical path into Los Alamos. The Municipal Building, public libraries, Teen Center, and White Rock town hall buildings all continued to have internet service during December’s outage. However, Information Manager John Roig explains that if the Lumen outage had affected the cable in the City of Española, the RediNet microwave connection to Los Alamos would also have been down.
Other factors which can limit the county government’s ability to provide internet services at county-owned facilities through microwave links are related to the county’s topography and geography. The main takeaway is the urgent need for additional physical paths that connect into and out of the county. A second fiber optic line is much preferred, allowing local providers to establish redundancy and have failover routes in place. Los Alamos County’s Broadband Manager Jerry Smith is actively pursuing this endeavor.
In the meantime, Lynne states that the county staff has made headway in creating redundancy for county-owned facilities. In January, a new microwave antenna was installed on the Municipal Building roof to receive internet services through a separate path to Albuquerque. If a similar outage were to occur again, the County could transfer public Wi-Fi at all county-owned facilities to the new path without any service interruption. Members of the public would then be able to take advantage of the free service at any of the county-owned facilities after county employees roll over to the backup service. Some of these facilities include the Municipal Building, Ashley Pond Park, Fuller Lodge, public libraries and the White Rock Fire Station 3.
Additional efforts to improve communication to the public are also underway. Emergency Manager Beverley Simpson has developed a method to bypass the phone systems in order to upload informational messages to the 1610AM emergency radio station during a communication outage. She is also exploring other options with the County’s emergency alert vendor CodeRED to escalate certain communications during any such incident. Public Works Director Juan Rael met with the Traffic and Streets division to discuss deploying electronic traffic message boards for strategic placement at various locations to provide updates, or direct citizens to locations where access to public Wi-Fi can be found if available. To supplement the County’s communications during outages, residents and businesses are encouraged to reach out to their cell phone and internet providers to inquire as to how to sign up for updates directly from the source.
Lynne reported that the County is taking away valuable lessons learned from this experience. “We will do a better job informing the community,” he emphasized. As the County revises the communication appendix, he offered the following recommendations for residents:
- Reach out to internet and cell phone providers now to inquire how to receive updates during potential future outages.
- Sign up for the County’s emergency notification system CodeRED. This can be done online at the CODERED webpage or by texting LOSALAMOS to 99411.
- Tune in to the 1610AM radio station during an internet outage. The County plans to broadcast status updates as it receives them from third-party sources.
- Visit county-owned facilities to utilize the public Wi-Fi, if available.
- Use a landline when calling the police non-emergency phone number (505) 662-8222 for information. 9-1-1 is for EMERGENCIES ONLY.