NH storm puts VoIP on ice

What started as rain last Thursday quickly turned into the worst ice storm in New Hampshire history. The Monadnock Region is wooded and hilly, and the ice-laden trees fell all over the power lines, disabling two thirds of the power grid in the Granite State.

We lost power for two days - and as time wore on our Comcast voice over IP (VoIP) and Verizon cellular phone service froze up as well.

Nearly a year after I switched from plain old telephone service (POTS) to voice over IP, I have come to regret it. I now understand the value of having tried and true twisted pair telephone wires attached to the house. VoIP is ok for power interruptions but inadequate during an emergency.

New Hampshire Ice Storm of 2008

Gorgeous devastation. This was the scene in  Nelson, New Hampshire on December 13th. Between this road and the highway two miles away more than a dozen trees and branches had fallen on the wires. Click here to see the five best photos of the devastation or Click here to see the longer slide show of 42 images. 

Why VoIP failed

While two thirds of New Hampshire residents lost power in the early days of the disaster (and many still don't have it back), most of those homes with traditional telephone service still had dial tone - for two reasons. While the lines carrying electrical power sit at the top of telephone poles, those lowly twisted pair wire bundles (and the copper and fiber that provide cable TV and internet services) sit much lower, and so they were less likely to receive the full brunt of falling tree limbs that paralyzed much of New Hampshire's power grid.

More importantly, those twisted pair lines carry a 5 volt current that powers the telephone network, delivering dial tone to customers everywhere. That power comes from batteries at the central office, which in turn are charged by the power grid. When the grid went down, battery power kept the system running until generators kicked in. This centralized, hub and spoke distribution system ensured that every end point device continued to function, so long as the physical telephone wire was still intact.*[See Note]

VoIP systems, which take a more distributed approach to powering the network, didn't fare so well. The "customer premise equipment" - the cable modem - plugs into a 110 volt outlet, and contains a battery good for a few hours - up to 8 hours of dial tone in our case - when power is interrupted. That was enough to get us dial tone until about 10 a.m. Friday morning. Then our phone - and the phones of many of our neighbors that also use Comcast VoIP - simply went dead. (A Comcast spokesperson says some cable modems may support two batteries and suggests buying a second battery that the customer keeps charged and then swaps in to extend telephone service to 16 hours. That would have given us power until about 4:00 p.m. Friday. Power wasn't restored until Saturday evening - and some home still don't have power as I write this.)

Voice mail confusion

VoIP also confused communications because people calling in were still able to reach our "answering machine." With no heat and temperatures dipping into single numbers on that first day, people were calling to see how we were doing and leaving messages. They assumed if the answering machine picked up that we must have phone service. But there was no answering machine at our house. They didn't understand that those messages simply piled up in Comcast's back-end voice mail servers, which were inaccessible to us.

Cellular black out

Cell phones also were no panacea. While our cell phones worked at our house, the tower serving my in-laws' house some 14 miles away was out of service - no doubt the tower had become a victim of the ice storm. Fortunately, my in-laws had POTS, although we couldn't use it until we pulled the AC-powered remote phone base station off the wall and replaced it with a standard Ma Bell era telephone handset. (LESSON LEARNED: Always have one corded phone on hand for an emergency).

Disaster planning

While POTS may have saved the day, the telephone company can't make too much hay over Comcast's failure. Its own VoIP offering, which runs over DSL, offers no battery backup at all, according to a spokesperson from FairPoint.

VoIP telephony is designed to work through temporary power interruptions. But during a disaster the phones quickly became useless. Unless you run a generator, that is - and that's expensive for an event that might happen once every four or five years.

So if you're thinking about a "triple-play" bundle that includes VOIP with your Internet access and television service and you're concerned about power outages, consider these choices for disaster planning: You could spend several thousand dollars to install a backup generator at your house and about $100 a day in fuel to run it (as my neighbor did). Or you add VoIP service but keep that old phone line and put it on a basic lifeline telephone service plan (the one that they don't advertise and don't tell you about). My cost for piece of mind: $6.06 per month from FairPoint Communications, or $13.02 after taxes and fees.

Sure, with basic metered service you'll pay a high per-minute cost to use that phone, even for local calls. But in an emergency that probably won't matter.

NOTE: This isn't entirely true. In some cases the network uses a modified star topology that includes fiber pairs that run to an intermediate remote terminal box, or "green box," that then fans out to support up to 196 customer lines. Those are backed up by batteries but have no backup generators. After the ice storm hit in New Hampshire, FairPoint Communications brought generators out to those aggregation points. However, many roads in New Hampshire were impassable due to the number of fallen trees. For some customers in those areas the battery power ran out before telephone company workers could reach the distribution point boxes. "The issue in the Monadnock Region was that some roads are still not passable. We're getting there, but that slowed us down," said a spokesperson.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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