Net Effects

by Hank Sims, April 6, 2011

One of the many dubious perks of living in Humboldt County — as it must be in places like New Orleans or Nome, Alaska — is that we regularly get to witness beautiful brute nature rise up and make a mockery of our frail pretensions to civilization. Earthquake, tsunami, flood: When the Earth gets bored and decides to bloody our noses, it has a whole repertoire of moves to choose from.

As we were reminded last week, even the ground we're standing upon is an ever-present threat. A great deal of the county is built on top of the gelatinous substance known as “blue goo,” a clay endemic to the geologically unstable Franciscan Complex, and when you add some water to the goo strange things can happen.

We're not as prepared for this as we should be. Last week a SoHum hill calved like an iceberg, dumping tons and tons and tons of rock, soil and trees right onto a 600-foot stretch of Highway 101 a few miles north of Redway, completely shutting down our best and most direct artery to the outside world. Yes, Caltrans was right on top of the crisis, working around the clock to restore service. Except for the regularly scheduled state holiday on Thursday — an event more powerful, apparently, than even a grave natural catastrophe — the Caltrans office staff in Eureka did a good job keeping everyone up to speed on the progress of their ground crews.

But damage to the road itself wasn't even the most serious concern. There were ways around, and drivers availed themselves of them. What would have happened, though, if the slide had severed and entombed the thin strand of fiber-optic cable that represents nearly the entirety of our telecommunications infrastructure?

“It wouldn't be pretty if [the fiber] were out for three or four days here,” Jim Carlson, owner of the Arcata-based technology firm Carlson Wireless, told me Friday. “It'd be worse than the highway being down.”

If you remember recent history, you know that Carlson wasn't exaggerating. Errant backhoes or shovels have performed this trick a couple of times before, knocking us off completely off the grid, and the damage is deeper than a sudden inability to post new Facebook updates. The phones go out. Banks can't give you your balance. ATM cards stop working. The entire modern world comes screeching to a halt.

Why, then, did no one have any solid information about what was going on with the fiber-optic line vis a vis the slide for several days? AT&T, the fiber's owner and operator, was typically hush-hush about the whole matter; they issued no information at all to the media, and as far as I can tell they issued none to local government or affected industries. Rumors flourished.

On Friday, a solid two days after the slide, my colleague Mike Dronkers finally found some solid second-hand intelligence: A Caltrans engineer told listeners to his KHUM radio show that AT&T personnel had been on site and had “relieved some tension” in the fiber-optic line, which, luckily, was buried some 10 to 30 feet deep along that stretch of highway. There appeared to be no immediate danger of outages.

Such simple yet crucial information can only be obtained, apparently, if an honest on-site bystander happens to see something. If this is the state of affairs, we should all be howling with rage. It's not only that the most basic systems of our economy could have gone down for a couple of days; it's the fact that the continued possibility or probability of such a thing eventually happening screws with our future.

After years of wrangling and bickering over redundant broadband access, with different factions proposing different schemes and aiming at different pots of grant money, it's not entirely certain that we're any closer today than we were back then. Late last year it looked like the Bay Area firm IP Networks was all geared up to run a line from the Valley along the PG&E right-of-way near Highway 36. Then, in February, the founder of IP Networks — a family firm, it seems — suddenly died. Everyone hopes that it's still a go, but as of last week the people I talked to still weren't 100% certain about that.

With only one tiny line to the outside world, it's something like a miracle that Humboldt County manages to have a thriving little technology sector. Businesses in that sector provide high-salary jobs with low environmental impact. On paper, at least, the county wants to see this kind of thing grow. Meanwhile, here we are in 2011, shipping out raw logs wholesale, 19th-century-style, and threats to our little glass cable to the future don't even merit a press release.

Hank Sims blogs at lostcoastoutpost.com. Email him: hank@khum.com.

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