Tom Butt
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  Our Tenuous Connection to Technology
June 28, 2017

Some time on Sunday, a large EBMUD water main under West Cutting Boulevard at Wine Street in Point Richmond burst, severing an adjacent conduit carrying the only  Comcast fiber optic cable that provides some 3,000 people and hundreds of businesses Internet, telephone and cable television service.

Initial estimates projected a repair by mid-day Monday. The protections changed more than a dozen times until Tuesday night when service was finally restored about 9:30 PM. Because I use a server at Interactive Resources, my architecture-engineering firm for email, I was unable to send or receive email for most of three days. The phones at Interactive Resources were also out during that period.

The facts, as I understand them, are that the water main break damaged the Comcast cable. EBMUD had to excavate the street, repair the water main, and shore the trench before Comcast could do anything. That process lasted until about 4:30 PM on Tuesday. Apparently BNSF had to also have a crew present because of proximity to a rail spur, and their slow response also resulted in some delay.

During this entire period, neither EBMUD nor Comcast made any effort to contact me, the mayor, to explain what was going on and update progress. As far as I know, they did not contact any other City officials or make any public announcements. Information about the cause of the problem and its repair was sketchy at best. Nextdoor and Facebook were the predominant sources, with fake news and alternative facts predominating.

The disruption, including costs for lost time and revenue, this caused to thousands of people and many businesses was considerable, and the lack of communication is unacceptable.

An incident like this is helpful for us to understand how tenuous and fragile is our connection to the technology we depend on. Communication companies have merged to the point that all of our services come from the same place. And a single cable serving 3,000 people with no redundancy? That seems like a recipe for disaster.

And the technology sector wants us all to go to the cloud, which puts us entirely at the mercy of Comcast or some other company for much of the work we do.

The City Council had a presentation from EBMUD last night that was mostly good news, like precipitation was 171% of average and reservoirs are nearly full. But we also heard that EBMUD maintains 4,200 miles of pipeline, that 35% of the system is cast iron pipes with an average age of 78 years (meaning much is a lot older) that result in75% of leaks. Another 30% is cement-asbestos that results in 16% of leaks with an average age of 47 years.

The next big thing we are told, is autonomous vehicles, tethered to the Internet via wireless transmission of GPS and other critical information sources. Can you imagine what would happen if you along with thousands of others including a bunch of semi-trailer trucks are riding own the freeway at the speed limit, and the system controlling everyone instantly goes down? Or someone seizes control of your car? Can’t happen? Well yesterday, the headlines blared, “A major cyber attack hit companies in Europe, the Middle East and the US on Tuesday, wreaking havoc for employees and customers alike.”

Welcome to the future.