Early in the afternoon on Dec. 19, CenturyLink phone service was disrupted, affecting residential and business customers in the Flint Hill and Huntly areas for nearly 24 hours. This was the second disruption in two weeks in the same area. The first outage, on Dec. 8, was repaired within a few hours.
In both instances, crews laying fiber-optic cable along U.S. 522 inadvertently cut the underground phone lines. The excavation along U.S. 211 and 522 north of 211 is part of a multistate project to connect existing cell towers to higher-speed, so-called 4G Internet service.
According to Stacy Londrey, a Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) spokesperson, the work is being done for Sprint by PEG Bandwidth, a Texas company that specializes in “backhaul” or “middle-mile” cabling projects. “After checking with our permits office, my understanding is that PEG was hired by Sprint to install the cabling,” said Londrey. “PEG does not have crews of its own and instead subcontracts the manual work to other companies.”
A Sprint spokesperson has not responded to a request for comment.
Simone Alley, a spokesperson for CenturyLink, confirmed that contractors in the area were responsible for the cuts. “In that two-week period, there were two cable cuts and one fiber-optic cut,” said Alley. “But I don’t know which contractor is responsible. There may have been more than one contractor working there.”
The Dec. 19 phone outage caused problems for Flint Hill businesses, including Griffin Tavern. “We were trying to plan for New Year’s Eve,” said owner Debbie Donehey. “We couldn’t reach our suppliers or take reservations for one of the busiest nights of the year.”
Vinnie Deluise, owner of 24 Crows, said, “It was a pain in the neck. With the phone lines down, we couldn’t process credit card orders. We could only take cash. Some people promised to send us checks. Others went to the BB&T bank next door to get cash from the ATM.”
Sheila Whaley, owner of Horse N Hound, agreed. “Processing credit cards was a problem for me, too. I had to take the machine home and process everything later.”
County officials also expressed concern. “I heard from local businesses that the phones were out, but there isn’t much we can do at the county level,” said Rappahannock County Administrator John McCarthy. “The county doesn’t own the rights-of-way on the roads or issue permits — that’s a VDOT responsibility. I’m sympathetic and concerned about the outages, but I don’t have a stick I can use to beat up the companies involved, nor do I have a carrot to offer.”
The outages could have caused even worse problems to local residents. “[Outages] affect the delivery of emergency services because, if we don’t know about an emergency, we can’t respond,” said Richie Burke, Rappahannock County emergency response coordinator. “I worry about the elderly and those who live in isolated parts of the county who have no cell service.”
Many of those affected by the outages wondered how the lines could have been cut in the first place.
Alley explained that, before cable crews begin digging, all the existing utility lines must be located and marked. “It’s a similar process to residents having to call Miss Utility before digging in the yard,” she said. “I can’t speak to what happened in your area, but different factors can contribute to the cuts. Sometimes the lines are not well-marked, sometimes crews don’t pay attention to the markings, they may start digging before the lines’ locations are identified, or it could be Mother Nature — materials just wear down.”
She also described another common scenario with outages: “Sometimes an outage occurs in one area that affects an area farther away. It can take some time to determine where the problem is.”
And why did the repairs take so long?
Working on 522, or Zachary Taylor Highway, presents its own safety risks. “The repair took so long because the road is narrow and heavily trafficked,” said Alley. “A lane of traffic was closed so that crews would have the space they needed to work. Repairs have to be done by hand in a cramped area.” For safety reasons — for drivers and work crews — work was shut down completely after dark. “We resumed repairs as soon as we could the next day.”
VDOT issues permits for work along state roadways. “Permit applications must describe the kind of work that will be done, its location and any traffic control activities,” said Londrey. “We are not responsible for the work, but we do have inspectors that make sure the permits are being complied with.” She said VDOT did not have a record of the lane closure that occurred on Dec. 19. “It is possible that law enforcement responded and requested the lane be reopened, but to the best of my knowledge, VDOT was not involved,” she said.