Verizon upgrades Block Island to “tier 1” site

Thu, 08/08/2019 - 7:30pm
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The cellphone outage that left Block Island customers without service for four days has resulted in Verizon upgrading the island to what is called a “major tier 1 site,” which should ensure a more rapid response time if such an outage should occur again.

Verizon Wireless officials told New Shoreham town officials during a closed door meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 7, at Town Hall that the company takes full responsibility for the outage, and its slow response in getting service restored. Verizon officials attributed the delay in its response in part to an inability to secure a ferry reservation for its equipment truck.

That’s according to Town Manager Ed Roberge, who met with Verizon Wireless officials at Town Hall on Wednesday, along with the First Warden, Second Warden, Police Chief, Fire Chief, Finance Director, Facilities Manager and the town’s IT Director. Verizon’s cellphone network experienced a service interruption from Friday, July 26 to Tuesday, July 30.

“Verizon described this as a perfect storm,” said Roberge, while presenting his Verizon outage report at the town council’s meeting on Wednesday evening. Roberge noted that Verizon’s network “is stable and working,” and Verizon has now designated Block Island as “a major tier 1 site.” He also said that Verizon was in the process of installing “a redundant system for the island’s security.”

“We expressed our concerns to Verizon collectively as a community,” said Roberge, who remarked that the tier 1 designation is “significant. If there is an outage, we are a tier 1 priority for responding” through Verizon’s Network Operations Center. “That includes a more robust inspection and testing. Verizon management recognizes Block Island is unique, and compared us on the same level as Martha’s Vineyard.” 

First Warden Ken Lacoste said town officials communicated the serious nature of the outage and its impact on the island’s public safety and its businesses. “Verizon was given a clear message about the serious nature that we consider this,” said Lacoste. “We made it very clear our concern about safety; and our concern about emergency communications. I think they got a clear message from us in the room.”

As for what happened to cause the outage, Roberge explained in his report that “there was a failure of the mainland fiber circuit that carries Block Island wireless traffic, and an equipment port issue on the microwave circuit between the island and the mainland. The fiber circuit of issue is a Cox Communication circuit that provides transport service between Verizon hubs at Charlestown and Providence. The microwave issue should have triggered failover to a backup port, however, that backup port failed as well. The Verizon Network Operations Center received notifications for both issues. These alarms did not have an elevated priority at the NOC, which is to say that the reporting system did not indicate that service to Block Island had been severely degraded, or that Verizon cell service was out to the entire island.”

Roberge said that in the wake of the outage, Verizon’s elevating of Block Island to tier 1 will ensure a more rapid response to a future outage or system issue. He also said, “The mainland fiber circuit has been repaired and full service has been restored. The microwave failover issue remains outstanding and is scheduled for repair on Monday, August 12. Once complete, the system and its redundant backup will be in full operation.”

Roberge noted that notifications and communications by Verizon “were lacking” during the outage. Another problem was that “Verizon engineers reported that they were unable to obtain ferry reservations for their trucks until Tuesday, July 30th when Police Chief Vin Carlone intervened and requested priority support by Interstate Navigation. Had communications started earlier, it is likely that Verizon crews would have been accommodated sooner.”

Moving forward, Roberge said, “Verizon is scheduling periodic (quarterly or bi-annually) failover testing on the microwave tower to be sure signal and hardware equipment is functioning at its peak performance.” Failover testing is is a testing technique that validates a system's ability to allocate extra resources and move operations to back-up systems during failure. He also noted that the town’s cellphones have now been given a priority service level.” And, “The town will assist Verizon with ferry reservations for emergency repairs in both directions in the future, if needed.”

After Roberge’s presentation, Councilor Martha Ball touched on the town’s failure to get information out to the public. “We as a town did not do a very good job of getting information out.” Ball said, noting that Verizon issued a statement about a “ridiculous” vendor fiber connection issue. “There was so much misinformation out there. We have to get ahead of this.”

Roberge admitted “clear deficiency” in getting information out to the public. “We struggled ourselves with trying to get a straight answer from Verizon. I wasn’t going to release information based on guessing. There was a lot of guessing going on. That’s what happens when there’s a crisis.” Roberge said he thinks the “town has a clear chain of communication with Verizon now.”    

Roberge said there was no assistance from Gov. Gina Raimondo, or her office, during the outage. He credited State Sen. Susan Sosnowski and State Rep. Blake Filippi with assisting the town. 

The Times did not receive comment from the governor regarding the outage. U.S. Rep. James Langevin’s office informed The Times that they had contacted Verizon officials and were monitoring the situation. 

The next Town Council meeting is Wednesday, August 21 at 7 p.m.