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Editorial: Telecom giants need to answer this wake-up call

Imagine your flight is canceled because of a winter storm. You try to use the app on your cellphone to summon an Uber or a Lyft, but there’s no internet. Ditto for trying to call, text or email someone to pick you up or to let someone at your destination know you will be a no-show.

Imagine trying to pay for dinner or return that sweater you had the bad luck of receiving on Christmas Day. With no internet or phone line, there’s no way to process your purchase or refund.

Imagine working at a large financial institution or a hospital with your internet and phone system down. You can’t process transactions. You can’t access, much less enter, electronic medical records.

Now imagine being stranded on the interstate during the middle of a blizzard. You try to call 911 but your call doesn’t go through. You can’t text. You can’t send an email. Your phone is a brick.

It’s not the script of the latest filmed-in-New-Mexico movie; it’s what occurred across the Land of Enchantment and a good portion of the United States a little more than a week ago.

The CenturyLink outage, Dec. 27-28, couldn’t have come at a more inopportune time – the Albuquerque-Metro area was under a blizzard warning, and much of the rest of the state was under a winter storm warning. The outage affected people from Massachusetts to Washington state. John Mierzwa, CEO of CNM Ingenuity Software Labs, says the extensive impact of the outage demonstrates the vulnerabilities of today’s dependence on connected networks.

That was clear in Albuquerque, as the outage also affected Verizon customers because CenturyLink helps handle wireless network data traffic for the cell-service giant. Lisa Adkins, chief operating officer of FatPipe ABQ, which offers co-working space Downtown for individuals and startup companies, said “it’s scary, because people don’t realize just how interconnected everything is until it all goes away.”

Service is back up, and we were fortunate. It could have been worse. But the outage was most undeniably a “wake-up call,” in Mierzwa’s words, that needs to be answered. Beyond the basic need to be able to call 911 in an emergency is the fact cybersecurity experts have warned for years that hackers are the new terrorists. So what caused such a widespread outage? Could hackers do the same? How vulnerable are we in terms of national security?

The Federal Communications Commission and Washington state have vowed to investigate. They should. Congressional and legislative hearings would seem to be reasonable responses before there is a next time.

We need answers from CenturyLink beyond the cryptic “a network element” caused the outage. We need to know how many CenturyLink and Verizon customers were affected. And we need to know what they – and other internet and phone providers – are doing to prevent similar outages or worse from happening in the future. Because if the outage showed nothing else, it’s that like an old-time string of Christmas lights, we are living in an interconnected world.

And when one light goes out, they can all go out.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.