A nor’easter that knocked out power to nearly 200,000 Maine customers early Thursday also left many homes and businesses in the state without internet service – and no way to find out when that service might be restored.
Unlike power utilities Central Maine Power and Emera Maine, internet service providers such as Spectrum and Consolidated Communications do not offer detailed information on their websites about where internet service is down, how many customers are affected and when service is expected to be restored.
Internet companies know internally how many customers are experiencing outages in the wake of storms, but they don’t want to broadcast that information because it would let competitors know where their customers are, one company executive said. They can’t accurately predict when service will be restored because internet providers are required by law to wait until the power utilities have completed repairs before they can get to work on restoring service, he said.
In most cases, the same utility poles that carry power lines also are strung with cables that deliver phone, cable TV and internet service to homes and businesses. If a storm knocks out power in a particular area, it also can affect those other services, either because a cable has snapped or because of power loss to special equipment in the field that allows copper cables to carry high-speed data over the internet.
Delivering high-speed internet service over copper cables requires special equipment placed on poles at regular intervals known as “power inserters,” which boost the electrical current carrying the data, said Chris Whelan, director of network engineering at Biddeford-based internet service provider GWI. Each power inserter has a battery backup that generally lasts a few hours, he said, and when the battery is drained following an extended power outage, cable or DSL internet service no longer will work until power is restored.
“Which is why, oftentimes, utility line power will be lost, and a customer will go and plug in their generator and (say), ‘Hey, look, my internet’s working,’ and then it stops working after a couple hours,” Whelan said.
This week’s nor’easter caused widespread and significant destruction when strong winds and heavy rains felled trees throughout southern Maine, downing lines, damaging cars and homes, and delaying or canceling classes across the region. Damage along the coast was especially severe.
CMP reported a peak of about 180,000 storm-related customer outages as a result of the storm, while Emera Maine reported a peak of about 40,000 outages. But that sort of detailed information never has been available to internet customers experiencing storm-related service outages in Maine.
For example, instead of providing outage maps or charts showing how many customers are currently experiencing outages in each part of the state, cable TV and internet service provider Spectrum’s web page devoted to outages simply states, “Variables, such as the duration and severity of the storm, will affect service restoration. Be assured that repairs will be made as quickly as possible once the storm clears and it is safe for our technicians to return to normal operations.”
The website also provides an automated phone service for customers to leave a number to be notified when their internet service has been restored.
Third-party websites such as istheservicedown.com and downdetector.com provide their own information about internet service outages based on real-time analyses of network activity and customer outage reports on social media and other online platforms. However, those websites don’t have the ability to estimate when service is likely to be restored.
Barry Hobbins, Maine’s public advocate to the state Public Utilities Commission, said the lack of outage information available to internet customers is something he intends to examine, while noting that the PUC does not regulate internet service, and that no utility in Maine is required by law to provide such information.
“It needs to be addressed,” Hobbins said.
The lingering outages disrupted workers who rely on home-based internet services, including Marge Stockford, 62, of Portland, who camped at Arabica Coffee House on Thursday and Friday after the storm knocked out internet and electricity at her condominium on York Street.
Stockford works remotely as a consultant and is also in the hunt for a full-time job, so internet was essential. In front of her, a laptop and a phone sat tethered to chargers plugged into a nearby wall outlet.
“I got an email recently that my cable’s back, but that’s irrelevant if I don’t have electricity,” Stockford said.
Not even the internet providers themselves can predict when service will be restored after a storm because of their reliance on power utilities to repair all the damaged power lines first, Whelan said. The best thing customers can do is lobby for fiber-optic internet service, either from their incumbent provider or a municipal broadband network. Whelan said fiber-optic service to the home, the only type of service GWI provides, does not require power inserters and rarely goes down in a storm.
“The GWI network actually didn’t experience any outages (from the storm Thursday),” he said. “The only reason why people didn’t have service in the GWI network was because they didn’t have power.”