Fiber line vandalism points up system's vulnerability

DANVILLE, Calif. (KTVU) -- A day after someone cut a fiber line on the North Coast, knocking out communications to tens of thousands of people in Mendocino, Humboldt and other counties, service has been restored.

But just like similar previous attacks, it has raised concerns about our vulnerability as a society because we are all so interconnected.

In the Bay Area, Danville and the surrounding area was victimized in a similar attack just three months ago.

"Oh, it was terrible," said real estate agent Karlyn Hunt.

The J. Rockcliff real estate office was one of numerous businesses that lost internet access for about half a day in June when someone cut a fiber line in Alamo.

"All of our business, our MLS, is online. Everything we do. So, yeah, we were just pretty much sitting around," explained Hunt.

Unlike the North Coast outage, the one here didn't adversely affect phone lines and police 911 service remained fully operational.

"For us, it took down our internet services. Our phones were still working and we were able to receive messages, but our website was down," said Danville Police Chief Steve Simpkins.

But if vandals target the right lines, they can cause a host of problems. Humboldt County had cell phone, land line phone service, and internet all knocked out. 911 there worked, but many people couldn't call in.

"The issue was coming with personal phones. Cellular, hard lines associated with AT&T were not working. So, if somebody had a true 911 call, they weren't able to call into our communications center," said Lt. Wayne Hanson of the Humboldt County Sheriff's Department.

Obviously, there are far more people in the Bay Area, with far greater dependence on the internet and communications. But that also means there have been more steps taken to ensure at least emergency services remains functional in cases of emergency. "We spend plenty of time doing table top exercises and being prepared for emergencies, and I'm very confident that when the next emergency happens, we'll be fully prepared to serve everyone around here," said Chief Simpkins.

Cal State Long Beach international relations professor Larry Martinez says this kind of attack has become a tool for people both inside and outside the country who want to damage society in a kind of asymetrical warfare. "Today, with these infrastructures being increasingly dependent on information infrastructures, we find that it's now possible to have a little thing disrupt a big thing. And this is what is asymetrical about it," he said.

The FBI is investigating Thursday's incident, as it is the one here and eight other attacks across the Bay Area since last year.

AT&T is offering up to a $10,000 reward for information that leads to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the fiber-line vandalism near Ukiah.