Squirrel blamed for internet blackout

By XANDER LANDEN and LOLA DUFFORT
VTDigger.ORG

A rodent brought down state government websites and interrupted internet service over a five-and-a-half-hour period last Wednesday, according to state officials.

The next day, FirstLight, the state’s internet provider, explained that state government’s internet connection went dark after a squirrel chewed through a fiber optic cable, said John Quinn, the secretary of Vermont’s Agency of Digital Services.

A representative for FirstLight, an Albany-based telecommunications company, declined to confirm the cause of the outage but said the line break occurred between Essex and Waterbury.

Maura Mahoney, vice president of marketing and product management for FirstLight, wouldn’t say how many customers were affected.

Crews restored service to the state by 3 p.m. and repaired the frayed cable within another hour, Quinn said. Service went down at approximately 9:30 a.m.

Quinn said state has a backup line for internet service, which should have kicked in when the squirrel chewed through the cable. But the line, previously operated by Sovernet, became part of FirstLight when the two companies merged in 2017 and FirstLight “consolidated” the two lines. “So we had the two different internet pipes – two roads – but they merged them halfway down.”

After the backup line’s apparent failure on Wednesday, Quinn said the state was considering contracting with a second internet service provider to prevent future blackouts in case of line breaks. “It’s extremely disappointing because we thought that we had built our network so things like this wouldn’t happen,” he said.

Mahoney declined to comment on how First Light would address the problem.

“I can’t comment on customers, specifically, without their express permission,” she said. “But certainly we work very closely with customers generally in terms of building resiliency into network design.”

Quinn said squirrels are notorious for chewing through fiber optic cables, and The Atlantic wrote in 2011 that one telecommunications company reported the critters were responsible for 17 percent of their damaged lines.

“I think we ought to pass legislation to make sure people are feeding squirrels so they don’t get hungry and start eating the lines,” Quinn said. “Kidding, of course.”

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