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Increased power and internet outages disrupt virtual life

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“CenturyLink has indicated a possible problem in calling 9-1-1 in the Roaring Fork Valley.”

Look familiar?

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Subscribers to Pitkin County emergency alerts may have seen this message via text and email on May 27. 

“Any time the internet is out, home phone service is out. That’s why 9-1-1 is unavailable,” said a CenturyLink sales representative.

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Though internet and electric outages don’t typically last long, Carbondalians have noticed more frequent occurrences recently. While schools were wrapping up their sessions online and people are working and living life evermore virtually during COVID-19, even short outages can be unusually disruptive.

Local resident and former CenturyLink customer Nicolette Toussaint said “I couldn’t host church meetings via Zoom nor even get my husband to a telehealth meeting with his doctor. He’s 89 and has had a couple strokes.” Touissant noted that she considers health meetings “absolutely necessary.”

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Toussaint said she has switched her service to Comcast, though others have reported that company’s coverage to be similarly spotty. An outage on May 11 caused Carbondale Town Council to delay its public meeting — the agenda of which included discussing the now-existent mask ordinance — more than a week due to lack of Zoom access.

Leslie Oliver, Comcast’s Mountain West Media and External Communications Director, said the May 11 outage was due to a dump truck cutting out an aerial line in Carbondale. Oliver pinned a May 5 outage to a scheduled CDOT maintenance project during which the backup infrastructure — which should have kept the Roaring Fork Valley connected — failed.

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Comcast reported in a May 20 press release that video conferencing on its services has increased 210 to 285 percent since early March. 

CenturyLink also noted an increased use in video services. “The network is a bit overloaded right now. Do expect speeds to be a bit slower,” a representative told me. He suggested people “be really selective with video streaming and high bandwidth activities.”

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A varied market for utilities and internet means Carbondale outages cannot all be attributed to a single company, nor can they be easily counted. Luke Hampton said he administrates data servers in downtown Carbondale and those reported a total of nine power outages in May.

COVID-19 has introduced all sorts of new activities to the virtual sphere. Not only are many folks working from home, but online platforms have become meeting places for doctor’s visits, birthday and graduation parties, and political meetings. Limiting high bandwidth activities would not have been a big ask back in February, but life during COVID-19 simply demands more connectivity more consistently. 

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“I cannot explain just how bad these outages have impacted students,” said Alisa Grimes, a teacher in the Valley. She noted a particularly memorable situation when internet and cell reception went out during year-end Advanced Placement testing. “These students have to reassess, how stressful,” she said. 

Valerie Eason said she usually works from home, “but at this time my entire team is working from home, as well. Connectivity is critical. Dropping off grid for an entire workday afternoon could have been catastrophic,” she said. “Luckily on [a recent] occasion it wasn’t.” Connectivity issues have not just affected Eason’s worklife, though. “Having my kids elsewhere and [outages] happening during mandatory stay at home and with the risk of a rapidly escalating illness definitely makes one feel vulnerable and isolated.”

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Eason is an Xcel Energy customer. Xcel’s Media Relations Representative Michelle Aguayo said “We understand how frustrating repeated outages can be for our customers and appreciate their patience as our crews continue their work replacing and upgrading the system in Carbondale. The work has caused several momentary outages over the last several weeks. Recent storms have delayed work and caused further outages.”

Holy Cross Electric, however, has reported almost no problems in the company’s power supply. Vice President of Power Supply and Programs Steve Beuning said that even with more people living life virtually, the continued closure of ski areas still reduces usage to 3 to 5 percent less than what is typical this time of year. 

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“Our power supply arrangements give us the flexibility to manage within this level of variance without any adverse impacts to energy availability,” Beuning said, though he did note an unfortunately-located Cormorant nest that was affecting power supply to Carbondale recently. That problem was solved by removing the nest which, Beuning said, was not a healthy place for the birds to be living anyways.

It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that the instructions to stay at home have put a strain on power supply and internet connectivity. While the implications of COVID-19 have affected how and when people use these services, the amount of services being used hasn’t changed much. Most utility companies maintain that their systems are holding up well. It seems that those pesky spring problems — storms, bird’s nests, and summer maintenance work — are the things to watch out for.

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