Internet, phone service snarled |

Internet, phone service snarled

Photo illustration by Jim Grant / Tahoe Daily Tribune / Lack of cell phone service was an annoyance for many.

Vandals apparently trying to steal copper from a telecommunications line near Kyburz were responsible for a massive outage that knocked out phone, Internet, e-mail, fax and some wireless services to customers from Placerville to South Lake Tahoe to the North Shore of Lake Tahoe, authorities and AT&T officials said.

The outage began at around 8:20 p.m. on Monday night. Service was restored by late afternoon on Tuesday, said AT&T spokeswoman Vanessa Smith. Sporadic telephone use was reported throughout South Lake Tahoe on Tuesday, but law enforcement, government offices and businesses reported they were still unable to use basic devices such as ATMs, fax machines, e-mail, or logging on to the Internet with their personal computers.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars in business may have been lost because of the outage, say merchants and the South Lake Tahoe Chamber of Commerce.

By noon Tuesday, AT&T reported more than 400,000 phone calls were lost. The emergency dispatch call center in South Lake Tahoe began diverting telephone calls at about 11 p.m. Monday so that police, sheriff and fire calls to the 911 could be met.

A fiber and cable line cut multiple times was discovered by telecom crews about 18 miles east of Placerville near Kyburz, about 600 feet north of Highway 50. About 2,000 feet of line was left on the ground south of the American River.

“It was an act of vandalism,” Smith said.

The cut line was replaced with about 1,000 feet on Tuesday.

Authorities said the nature of the cut line leads them to believe it was severed with the intent to sell the copper. The scrap metal is worth $1.10 a pound and is thought to be “pretty heavy,” El Dorado County Sheriff’s Lt. Dale Spear said. Those who steal the metal usually have it melted down and taken to the salvage yard.

A similar case occurred last week near Grass Valley east of Route 20, where thieves took 1,500 feet of copper line. The vandalism knocked out power to the small town of Washington and parts of Nevada City. Another case of copper theft was reported in Elk Grove.

With a white-collar war going on over telecom control, the authorities haven’t ruled out competitive sabotage. The case may be investigated by the FBI since beefed up laws guarding emergency services.

“It’s a pretty good whodunit,” Spear said.

AT&T has offered a $5,000 reward for anyone with information leading to the arrest of the individuals responsible in both the Grass Valley-area case and Tahoe’s. Information may be called in to (925) 543-8000.

Meanwhile, authorities were tested with their own emergency services. County offices based in Placerville were primarily cut off in communicating with Tahoe workers.

When South Lake Tahoe dispatch discovered its 911 services were down and phone lines made it difficult to dial out, supervisor Leona Allen said calls had to be diverted until 11:08 p.m. The main concern was not “knowing who couldn’t get through,” she said. At one point, Kory Olsen, a longtime dispatcher, took two steps away from her work station and raised her cellular phone over her head to make a phone connection.

Telephone service was intermittent at best but perhaps could be considered the primary form of disruption. “We know some calls are getting through,” Smith said.

When computing the lost time and money in business and credit card transactions, sales and employee down time, the outage could wind up costing South Lake Tahoe businesses hundreds of thousands of dollars, said Duane Wallace, executive director of the South Lake Tahoe Chamber of Commerce.

“One guy I spoke with today said he lost $4,000 today. Now he may get that back tomorrow, but still,” Wallace said. “Right now there is no way to gauge it to the dollar, but if you look at the mudslides on Highway 50, we’ve estimated that it cost business about $1 million a day.”

Kmart Store Manager Scott Lymon said point of sale purchases were disrupted by some customers making credit card purchases. The problem was accentuated by a satellite service outage.

“It hasn’t been a good day,” he said.

But apparently, people were understanding.

“We haven’t had too many complaints,” he said.

Even though they were without phone connection, U.S. Bank, El Dorado Savings Bank and Bank of America remained open, with all transactions done manually. Disruption to ATM machines was spotty.

“Customers have been understanding. They’ve been through these kind of outages before,” said U.S. Bank manager Kathy Barela.

Bill Chancer, a manager at Raley’s at the Village Center, reported no disruption to operations there. The same with Raley’s at the “Y,” which hooks up to a Sacramento feed. Albertson’s Supermarket at Al Tahoe Boulevard also wasn’t affected, as its scans and ATMs are hooked up to wireless networks, said store manager Mike Patton. However, telephones within the store did not work.

“We did get some calls that had to try a few times to get through,” Chancer said.

Chancer said the telecom outage shows how dependent Americans are on their technology.

“Look at when we went from stoves to the microwave,” he said.

The Tahoe Daily Tribune was also impacted because its system is set up to communicate with a central production office in Carson Valley.

“We rely on e-mail. This can bring business to a standstill,” Advertising Manager Roz Brooks said.

Although closed for the season, Sierra-at-Tahoe was also affected by the outage. Information technology director Mike Lynn said employees complained they were not able to use the Internet and the phone and asked him for help. Lynn called the phone company, who told him about an outage. After about 14 hours had elapsed from the outage, Lynn knew it was serious.

What he found most troublesome was that wireless and telecommunications were down.

“You become aware that these are the lines that we are all heavily dependent on. Whether it’s Sprint, IBC, Singular, Verizon – all of these companies use the same phone line,” he said.

Like the Lake Tahoe Unified School District, Barton Memorial Hospital reported minimal disruption to its operation. While LTUSD re-routed downed calls from South Lake Tahoe High School, Barton’s medical services equipment was not affected.

“Some people could just not make a call into the hospital,” spokeswoman Aimee Morales.

AT&T/SBC indicated it would be open to fielding inquiries regarding the loss of compensation and hardships on a case-by-case basis. Residents may call (800) 310-2355. Businesses may make their claim at (800) 750-2355.

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